In the eyes of many, the case for labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is simple: people have the right to know what they’re eating. These labeling advocates insist that it does not matter that there is no credible evidence of harm from consumption of GMO foods by humans. To them, people are morally entitled to have the information printed on food labels, and selling unlabeled GMOs constitutes a violation of that right.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of this line of reasoning. Yet it’s also worth thinking more carefully about its meaning and its broader implications. Ethicist Chris MacDonald offers a good introduction to the subject of rights:
Rights are mechanisms for protecting important human interests. In free societies, for example, we have a right to security of person and a right to own property and a right to free speech, because we see these things as crucially important to living a good human life. We may have other interests or needs, but not all of them are protected by rights. Why? Well, it’s worth remembering that when someone has a right to something, this imposes obligations on other people. In some cases (as in the right to free speech) it means an obligation not to interfere. In other cases it means an obligation actually to provide something (for example, if I’ve performed my job as promised, I have a right to be paid and my employer has a positive obligation to provide me with my wages). It’s also important to note that, given that rights impose obligations on other people, we need at least to consider just how burdensome those obligations are, before we assert the correlative right with any certainty. (For example: even if you desperately need a kidney, you don’t have a right to mine while I’m still using it.)
As MacDonald points out, it’s not hard to think of bits of information that almost nobody would claim to have a right to. MacDonald gives the example of whether a meal was produced with immigrant labor, but there are others which are less inflammatory. Would anybody claim to have the right to know the exact temperature at which a loaf of bread was baked?
The point is not to argue that all of these pieces of information are equally frivolous. Rather, it is that the argument for a “right to know,” as it is typically made, is independent of any risk, harm or other indication of importance. As such, it applies equally well to all of these pieces of information. Unless we are ready to mandate labeling for all of these things, the “right to know” argument doesn’t work.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that mandatory GMO labeling is necessarily a bad idea, but that a sound argument would GMO labeling will require considering a number of questions. What are the benefits of labeling, and who reaps these benefits? What are the burdens imposed by labeling? When is it appropriate for government to intervene in the market? These are complicated questions, and I don’t think we should expect that everybody come to agree on the answers. But, at very least, we ought not let the cries of a “right to know” drown them out.
This is the third in a seven part series on compulsory labeling of foods containing products of genetic engineering.