Trans-fats vs. Genetically Modified Foods
I’m blogging on the road again. I just presented a paper on the labelling of Genetically Modified (GM) foods, at Université de Montréal. (Terrific audience, by the way. Thanks guys!)
The main point of my presentation (based on a paper I co-authored with Melissa Whellams, forthcoming in the Journal of Business Ethics) is that there just isn’t enough evidence that GM foods pose any serious dangers to justify thinking that individual companies have an obligation to label their GM foods. The argument is premised on the idea that the only way companies could be obligated would be if there were one of the following things:
1) A law requiring it;
2) A serious threat to human health;
3) Recognition within the industry that labelling made sense as a shared way of doing business; or
4) A consumer right to the information.
We argue that none of these conditions obtains. In North America, there are no laws requiring labelling. The relevant regulatory agencies and blue-ribbon panels say there’s no evidence of risk to human health. And there’s certainly no concensus within the industry that companies ought to label.
Finally, on the issue of rights: we note that though rights talk is rhetorically potent, we find little by way of cogent argumentation regarding the grounding of a consumer right to know, in this case. The interests at stake here simply aren’t sufficiently compelling to justify a rights claim; there are competing rights and interests (e.g., the rights & interests of farmers & retailers) that need to be taken into account; and, even if there were a right to this information, it’s not clear that attributing an obligation to individual companies would be a reasonable way of satisfying that right.
So, no corporate obligation.
Contrast this case with the case of trans fats. Trans fats are clearly, undeniably bad for us (though, as with most things that are bad for us, the danger depends on the quantity consumed). No one denies that. Hence some governments, including the City of New York, have banned trans fats from restaurant kitchens. Some people will take this as a precedent for stricter controls on GM foods. But two things need to be pointed out.
First, note that even though trans fats are bad, unilateral action by one or a few restaurants would have had a negligeable (perhaps literally zero) effect on anyone’s health. Even in the case of a chain as popular as McDonald’s, few people eat enough of the chain’s food that elimination of trans fats from it would have any effect. The hope — the evidence — is that a ban on trans fats across the board is going to do some good.
Second, note that even though the dangers of trans fats are undeniable, it’s still ethically controversial (though perhaps not indefensible) for a government to ban them. People like the cheap, tasty fries that emerge from McDonalds’ deep fryers. And there’s very little chance, at this point, that people are uninformed about the dangers of fast food. So, a law banning even those notoriously-unhealthy trans fats is in direct violation of the time-honoured principle (credited to J.S. Mill) known as “the Harm Principle.” That principle basically says that laws should be passed to protect people from each other, not from themselves. Of course, governments violate this principle all the time, but doing so often stirs up controversy, and pretty much always requires some special justification.
So, even for products that we know are dangerous, regulation is the only effective solution, and special justification is required for intervening in individual decision-making. Seen in this light, unilateral labelling of GM foods looks pretty tough to support.