GMO labelling and consumer rights

Talk of a ‘right to know what I’m eating’ cannot be supported.

(Photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star/GetStock)

Next month, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, regarding the mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods. Because it’s about food, and because it’s taking place in California—a place where they take their food and their plebiscites seriously—the effort has been highly-publicized and highly politicized. California is both an important agricultural state and the state with perhaps the highest concentration of believers in the “Natural is Good” mantra. So it’s not surprising that the fight over Prop 37 is raising some dust.

One of the favourite slogans of the pro-Prop 37 forces is the claim that consumers have a right to know what they’re eating. This is a strong claim. Using the language of rights is a way of making the strongest possible kind of ethical claim, a way to draw a line in the topsoil, as it were. To say that someone has a right to something is quite different from saying merely that “it would be good if we did this” or “good people and good companies do this sort of thing.” It expresses a kind of moral absolute.

Indeed, if it were true that consumers really have a strong right to know what they’re eating—including, presumably, a right to know the genetic makeup of their food—then Prop 37 ought to be redundant. Any corporate citizen worth its salt makes every effort to respect its customers’ rights. When there is a right to some piece of information, institutions and methods of production need to be designed and implemented to respect and promote such rights.

But the idea that we have a right to know what we’re eating can’t stand up to scrutiny, at least not if we define “what we’re eating” to include every aspect of the food’s makeup and indeed its history. Counter examples are easy. If you’re sipping a Coke, do you have a right to know the exact proportion of various ingredients? No, that’s a secret. If you’re eating in a restaurant, do you have the right to know the Chef’s method for searing your tuna steak so perfectly? Of course not—though you of course have the right to eat elsewhere.

Or consider this example: do you have the right to know whether the banana you’re eating was picked on a Thursday? (Imagine that Thursday is a holy day in your religion.) No, because recording and tracking day-of-harvest for boatloads of bananas would be difficult and expensive. Yes, the fact might matter to you a lot, but there are other ways of accommodating your interest in that information, short of attributing a morally weighty (let alone legally binding) right to it. Taken seriously, the right to know your food’s history even implies that the racist or sexist or homophobe has a right to personal information about the people who handled their food along the supply chain. And yet surely there is no such right to information that lets someone act out their prejudices.

The point is that people might want to know all sorts of information about the food they’re eating. And that’s fine. But saying they have a right to it is a different thing altogether. Rights protect important interests. And according to the impartial blue-ribbon panels that have considered the matter, there simply is no compelling evidence that anyone needs to know the genetic makeup of their food, or that a right to such information would protect any important consumer interest.

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