With GMOs, Should Government or Consumers Prevail?

The decision this week by General Mills shareholders to reject a proposal to remove all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from its products brought into stark relief the controversy surrounding whether government regulation or consumer choice ought to govern that issue in the marketplace.

Almost 98% of the company’s shareholders voted no on the proposal, which was brought forth by the granddaughter of one of the company’s founders. Right-wing think tanks, long opposed to any government regulation of GMOs, see this development as a victory for free enterprise capitalism and consumer choice.

GMOLabelingThis conflict has created some interesting bed partners. On the one hand, liberals who mostly favor science and support its advance, find themselves opposed to artificially modifying DNA. In this position, they find themselves strangely aligned with a rabid Right which is simply and blindly opposed to any and all government regulations.

The question seems to me to be worth debating. In a free market, consumers vote with their dollars. It is up to them whether to purchase and consume food that contains GMOs. However, those who oppose such foods insist that there is at least a strong potential for public health consequences of the consumption of substances, the long-term effects of which are simply unknown, and in fact unknowable.

I find myself somewhere in the middle. I strongly approve of efforts to require labeling of all foods containing GMOs, a move which is also opposed by conservatives for reasons that completely escape me. But I think for the moment I’m inclined to stop short of banning those foods from the shelves. If we take the position as a society that only something which has been proven not to be harmful can be marketed, we will surely slow the advance of science and research to a crawl. It seems to me incumbent on our system to do the best job it can of protecting us against known peril and then to allow the marketplace to sort things out, rather than to pre-emptively ban new products until they can prove the negative.

But I also confess that I am concerned about allowing greedy corporations simply to unleash untested products for consumption by an unsuspecting and largely uneducated public. Still, until and unless some evidence emerges proving that GMOs are dangerous, I will remain in favor of allowing them with appropriate labeling.

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