BioEngineered Foods, Markets & Social Conflict

I gave a talk today at Ryerson University in Toronto, on “Resolving Social Conflict Over BioEngineered Foods.” The talk was part of Ryerson’s Ethics Speakers Series. (The whole talk will eventually be podcast via the Speakers Series page, but it may take a couple of weeks before it’s available.)

Basically I talked about various institutional mechanisms for dealing with fundamental disagreement, within society, over particular products, technologies or social policies. Democratic government is one such mechanism. We empower a government to act on our behalf. We won’t all agree with everything that government does, but if the process has been reasonably democratic, we can at least endorse that. It lets us get along despite disagreement. Professions and expert bodies can play some of the same role: in at least some places, social disagreement over abortion, nuclear power, and defence of child abusers has been defused by handing decision-making over to physicians, engineers, and lawyers respectively. The same goes for markets: we may be socially divided over pornography or Wal-Mart or the need for food to be prepared according to biblical rules, but the market provides a mechanism by which each of us can satisfy our preferences, without those preferences being imposed on others.

I argued today that a regulated market is the appropriate social mechanism for dealing with controversy over bioengineered foods. I noted that while expert opinion on the safety of such foods is overwhelmingly positive, some people have lingering doubts that seem unlikely to be resolved through further debate or additional data or more expert opinion. I then noted the standard view that the proper role of a liberal democratic government is to promote the wealth & well-being of its citizens, but to do so in a way that is neutral with regard to what constitutes “the good life” (which includes metaphysical questions such as whether fiddling with genes constitutes an offence unto God, Mother Nature, etc.). Such being the case, the right decision for government to take with regard to GM foods is to get expert input regarding safety, and then to allow the market to operate. Note that this is not simple market fundamentalism. The point here is not that markets are always right, but that in some cases markets allow us to agree to disagree.
Update: my talk is now online.

4 comments so far

  1. Paul G. on

    Sounds like a good talk, Chris – sorry I couldn’t hear it, but at least I got to be there for your warm-up 🙂So here’s my question about the market and issues like GM foods: how does the market handle the unknown? It seems to me that it can’t, and has to forfeit to social policy. The market is indeed fairly good at handling issues where the research is in and opinion is divided. But I think the whole problem with issues like GM food, or global warming, is that the science can’t fully inform. As you mention, with GM foods the preponderance of evidence is that it’s not harmful, but its long-term safety (for people, or the ecosystem) isn’t provable. Climate change is the opposite: man is likely causing environmental harm, but this isn’t definitively provable either.In both cases, we’ve left it to the market to decide, with industry chugging ahead happily. But markets are notoriously shortsighted, as there isn’t a lot of money to be made in worrying about the long term. In some sense leaving things to the market is simply abdicating decision-making.It’s these situations where policy (or democratic government) has to step up, if it can be justified and stomached. At what point (and who makes this call?) are the stakes sufficiently high, and the interests and risks so complex, that we need to look beyond the market?

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Paul:I think you’re both right and wrong about it being impossible to prove GM foods safe. Absolute certainty may be impossible, at least in the short run. But a high degree of certainty is possible, based on an understanding of the underlying science. I can’t *prove* empirically that watching TV won’t give me cancer. But we only need to understand the relevant physics to know that the radiation that makes up TV broadcast signals are too weak to disrupt molecular bonds in our cellular DNA. I get my genetic info second hand, but my understanding from plant geneticists is that the case of GM food is like that: if you understand the underlying science, it’s obvious that there’s no problem (at least for human health).But I agree (and tried to make clear both in my talk and in the blog posting) that there is of course a role for government — namely, to consult the relevant experts about safety. Only after satisfying themselves about safety can they give the green light to industry (and even then government will often have an ongoing regulatory role).Regards,Chris.

  3. Craig Brown on

    I have just come to this post out of context -and I don’t wan t be a GM sceptic. I want the world to be able to feed otself.But it really feels like the quality of information in food science is biased in favour of an industry that wants to use research as a marketing tool, and to sell us something we don’t really want.

  4. Chris MacDonald on

    Craig:I’m not sure why you think “the quality of information in food science is biased in favour of … industry.” not all plant geneticists work for or are funded by industry. I don’t see any reason to think that *all* the science in this area is biased.

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