A piece I published over at my other blog (the Business Ethics Blog) has been earning me some push-back, to put it mildly, from fans of GMO labelling. The piece I wrote is called “Why Neil Young is wrong about genetically modified food labelling”. It’s a response to an open letter that Canadian folk-rock singer Neil Young recently sent to Starbucks, complaining about the company’s participation in a lawsuit aimed at getting Vermont to repeal its new labelling requirement for genetically modified foods.
It’s worth noting, along the way, that the name “Monsanto” is part of the larger story, here, because that company is also part of the lawsuit. But even whispering that name sends some people off the deep end. (I’ve criticized the company myself, which is something that didn’t stop people from assuming that my critique of Neil Young meant that I’m in Monsanto’s back pocket.)
So it is perhaps not surprising that a few kind and generous (ha ha!) people on Twitter have not liked my conclusion. And rather than grapple with the argument I provided, or with the issues more generally, many decided to swear at me, to attack my character, and to impugn my motives. All of this without knowing me, and apparently without knowing anything about who I work for.
For the record, I’m an ethics professor at a publicly-funded university. I get zero dollars, in any form, from Starbucks or Monsanto or big biotech or big agriculture. The arguments I present constitute my best attempts at sorting out hard problems. If you don’t like my conclusions, then the right thing to do is to figure out where the argument leading to those conclusions went wrong. As I always tell my students, the greatest favour you could do for me is to show me errors if I have made some. I mean this quite seriously: when I first started working on the question of the ethics of GMO labelling, and started working through the issues, I actually expected to reach a more anti-GMO conclusion. My biases were in that direction. I expected I would end up arguing in favour of labelling. But a careful examination of the relevant facts, along with the relevant moral principles, pointed me in the other direction. Mandatory labelling is misguided, and in the absence of mandatory labelling, food companies are not ethically obligated to engage in labelling on a voluntary basis.
The issue of GMO labelling is regrettably politicized, and this means that people often aren’t open to hearing reasoned arguments. That’s a shame. The issue is too important to decide based on prejudice, ignorance, and team spirit.