GM Foods, the Environment, and Corporate Obligations

Dominic Martin, a doctoral student at the Université de Montréal, has posted some thoughtful comments [link dead; deleted by CM, March 2009] about a presentation I made there a couple of weeks ago. (Merci bien pour tes remarques, Dominic!)

Briefly: my presentation (based on a forthcoming paper), was about the labelling of genetically-modified (GM) foods. I argued that corporations could only be obligated to label GM foods if one of 4 conditions obtained:

  1. a legal requirement;
  2. a recognition within the industry that labeling is appropriate;
  3. a threat to human health;
  4. a consumer right to information about the GM content of their food.

I further argued that none of these 4 conditions obtains. Hence, there’s no corporate obligation to label.

Martin objected (both during the discussion following my presentation, and now on CEA’s blog) that I’d neglected environmental concerns. He’s right. Part of my response to his critique (as he notes) was that to an extent, environmental concerns can be subsumed under point #3 above: if the anticipated impact of environmental concerns were such as to jeopardize human well-being, then there would indeed be a plausible argument in favour of an obligation for corporations to label (because even if the threat is not immediate and direct, consumers should have the option of not buying products that are, through their production, contributing to hurting people). But as Martin notes, this argument is firmly anthropocentric (i.e., human-centred) and that’s not the only possible moral perspective on the environment.

Alternatively, what if we regard the environment (as many people do) as having not just “instrumental” value (i.e., value because it’s useful to us humans), but “intrinsic” value (i.e., value for its own sake) as well?

My argument here (one I’m working out more fully in a follow-up paper) is roughly this: even if the environment is of intrinsic value (i.e., even if it should be protected for its own sake), it’s not clear that an obligation to label GM foods follows. In order for a duty to protect the environment to imply a duty to label, we would need to be reasonably sure of the following 3 things:

  1. the production of GM foods actually jeopardizes the environment;
  2. informed choice by individual consumers would be an effective way to protect the environment from this risk; and
  3. labelling (by individual companies) of GM foods as GM is an effective way of informing consumers to enable to them to act upon their environmental beliefs and/or duties.

I take it that none of these 3 is clearly true — I suspect I’ll face most opposition on #1, but note that all 3 need to be true to imply a corporate obligation. So, I think that no matter how deeply we value the environment, there’s no corporate obligation to label GM foods. But of course all of this is consistent with (though it does not imply, and I don’t advocate) believing either a) that governments ought to require labelling, or b) that companies ought not produce GM foods at all.

[Note: the forthcoming paper upon which my Montréal presentation was based was co-authored by Melissa Whellams. But Melissa shouldn’t be blamed for the half-baked extension of our argument presented here.]

3 comments so far

  1. […] there are now calls for labelling nation of origin, carbon footprint, water footprint, genetic content, and so on. The list seems endless, and is […]

  2. […] Should Companies Label Genetically Modified Foods? Posted on August 16, 2010 by Chris MacDonald Since this blog is relatively new, readers may not have seen my postings (on my Business Ethics Blog) about the labelling of GM foods. (See here and here.) […]

  3. […] lack of harm shown by genetically engineered crops. In another post, Chris addresses the idea that environmental concerns are enough to warrant labeling, arguing that the concerns aren’t science based and that […]

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