Inexact Change

Thoughts on science, politics, and social progress.

In Defense of Opacity

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A poster for the Proposition 37 GMO labeling campaign. [Source]( poster for the Proposition 37 GMO labeling campaign. Source.

A cousin of the “right to know” argument for GMO labeling is the argument for labeling GMOs in the name of transparency. This line of reasoning does not necessarily assert that consumers have a moral right to additional information. Instead, it simply asserts that transparency and information for consumers is desirable and that compulsory labeling of GMOs is therefore a good thing.

I have previously argued that GMO labeling does not necessarily provide transparency, but it’s also worth asking when transparency is a good thing. There are many examples of transparency that most people would consider to be undesirable. For instance, nobody would argue for a publicly searchable online database of social security numbers of United States residents. Such a database would increase transparency, but at the cost of leaving many people vulnerable to identity theft. Indeed, the very notion of privacy stands in opposition to transparency.

Of course, there are very important differences between human beings and the corporations that make our food, and so we shouldn’t necessarily expect the same degree of transparency from both. Even so, the case for transparency isn’t open and shut. In a 2009 piece provocatively titled Against Transparency, Lawrence Lessig explored some of the pitfalls of transparency. Though Lessig focused on transparency in government and healthcare, his piece raises a number of issues with broader relevance.

Most striking is the idea that people may have something to gain from being less informed. Lessig explained,

Consider, for example, a story by Peter Lewis in The New York Times in 1998:

Surveillance cameras followed the attractive young blond woman through the lobby of the midtown Manhattan hotel, kept a glassy eye on her as she rode the elevator up to the 23rd floor and peered discreetly down the hall as she knocked at the door to my room. I have not seen the videotapes, but I can imagine the digital readout superimposed on the scenes, noting the exact time of the encounter. That would come in handy if someone were to question later why this woman, who is not my wife, was visiting my hotel room during a recent business trip. The cameras later saw us heading off to dinner and to the theater–a middle-aged, married man from Texas with his arm around a pretty East Village woman young enough to be his daughter…. As a matter of fact, she is my daughter.

“Privacy” here would hardly be invoked for the purpose of hiding embarrassing facts. Quite the contrary: the hidden facts here are the most innocent or loving. Yet it would hide these facts because we may be certain that few would take the time to understand them enough to see them as innocent.

The point in such cases is not that the public isn’t smart enough to figure out what the truth is. The point is the opposite. The public is too smart to waste its time focusing on matters that are not important for it to understand. The ignorance here is rational, not pathological. It is what we would hope everyone would do, if everyone were rational about how best to deploy their time. Yet even if rational, this ignorance produces predictable and huge misunderstandings. A mature response to these inevitable misunderstandings are policies that strive not to exacerbate them.

This has a number of implications for the GMO labeling debate. One is that additional information can actually be burdensome rather than helpful. As in the case of the man heading off to dinner with the younger woman, an innocent piece of information can seem suspect without sufficient context. And in the case of genetic engineering, there’s ample evidence that many Americans don’t have that background information: in a 2010 National Science Foundation survey only 47% of Americans correctly identified as false the statement, “Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do.” Telling people that their food is genetically engineered leaves them with the responsibility to seek out that important context. Thus, one need not believe that people are stupid to be misled by GMO labeling. One could instead believe that people should not have to take on the responsibility of learning about the issue.

No doubt there are some in the food reform movement who will take issue with the idea that consumer ignorance might be an acceptable choice. In his book Cooked, for instance, Michael Pollan writes, “For what is the environmental crisis if not a crisis of the way we live? The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices made by us…and the rest of them made by others in the name of our needs and desires.” That is, informed consumers are essential to solving “the Big Problem” and responsibility for that problem lies with those consumers who don’t act on this information to make “better” purchases. In this framework, there is no room for choosing not to know where your food came from; all ignorance is pathological.

In suggesting that we might afford consideration to those who don’t wish to be bothered by information, I don’t mean to imply that we should give up on reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture. Rather, I take the view that the only sensible way to address many environmental issues is by government regulation, say, by imposing fines on agricultural polluters. I wholeheartedly agree that there are problems to be addressed, but I don’t see informed consumers making better decisions as a necessary part of the solution.

Even so, I would stop far short of saying that consumers have a right to ignorance. We have all kinds of labeling mandatory, even though many people will not use all of the required information. Nutritional information may be unnecessarily confusing to people who don’t know anything about nutrition and don’t care about eating healthily, but that doesn’t stop us from mandating labeling of nutritional information. The point about GMO labeling is simply that some people may have something to lose from the added information, and that this deserves to be weighed against the desires of people who want GMOs labeled (who can already choose to buy products from those companies who will provide them with the information).

Of course, it is not easy to consider rational ignorance in making policy. It’s intrinsically hard to measure people’s interest in not knowing things. Once you ask people whether they want to know something, you’ve already started to chip away at their ignorance. Certainly, polls do show that people say they want GMO labeling, but on the other hand plenty of people seem happy enough to buy unlabeled GMOs even when non-GMO alternatives are available.

It is also possible that any interest in rational ignorance might be erased by the anti-GMO movement’s particularly loud misinformation machine. To believe, for example, that GMOs causes cancer or severe stomach inflammation is to be ignorant in a way that is decidedly irrational, as it will lead one to discount certain food options for reasons that are not based on fact. This kind of ignorance is unlikely to be corrected other than by accurate information presented very carefully. As such, it may be effectively impossible for anybody to make rational choices related to biotechnology without actually acquiring a significant amount of information.1

Even so, it’s worth considering the broader implications of making a goal of transparency in the food system. In my experience, the push for transparency tends to come from relatively well-to-do individuals who have time to learn about how their food was produced and where it comes from. Not everybody is so fortunate, nor is everybody with the means interested in spending more time learning about food. I hope that we can strive to make policies that account for this. Rather than making a rule of aiming for transparency, we should talk about what transparency might accomplish in each situation.

This is the fourth in a seven part series on compulsory labeling of foods containing products of genetic engineering.

  1. Something is missing from the GMO labeling debate
  2. GMO labeling and consumer choice
  3. You don’t have a right to know what you’re eating
  4. In defense of opacity
  5. How strong is support for GMO labeling?
  6. Why mandate labeling?
  7. I don’t know whether GMO labeling should be required

  1. It’s not clear that this actually makes a case for special labeling of foods containing biotech ingredients, however. It seems to make a stronger case for background information about genetic engineering.