Food, Freedom, and Smiley Faces

The day before Independence Day in 2018 was the last day to comment on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposal for mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The requirement for a nationally recognizable standard was passed in 2016 during the Obama administration. The proposal offers guidance to food companies who will soon have to disclose the presence of GMOs in a food on its packaging.

Requiring a label is a huge advance over where the nation stood previously. The ability to know what food one is putting in one’s mouth would seem to be one of the most fundamental liberties in a country that prides itself on being the land of the free. Without a federal mandate, few states required notification to consumers of the presence of GMOs in food. Only Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont ever passed labeling laws and there was no system in place that would smoothly cross state boundaries.

One of the most interesting elements of the proposed standard is that the most commonly used phrase for such plants and animals – “genetically modified organisms” – is to be replaced by the term “bioengineered food.” This certainly begs the question of what was wrong with a term that has become recognizable to consumers over the three decades this technology has been in use.

Other elements of the proposal that have raised eyebrows include the fact that the flexible approach allows a food manufacturer to disclose the presence of GMOs either with a line of written text, with a symbol, or with a QR (quick response) code. The latter requires a smart phone or other scanning device as well as an active internet connection to be read. One wonders whether this is altogether fair to those who don’t possess smart phones. One also wonders whether it is fair to those who do, but who don’t have the time to stop and do internet research in the condiments aisle of the grocery store.

Critics have also questioned the design elements of the proposed symbols, each of which appear to put a somewhat cheerful face on something about which many people still have their doubts.

Whether these doubts are legitimate may still be an open question. The battle over the ethics of GMOs has shifted recently from the question of whether they are harmful to eat – a lot of evidence says they are not – to the question of whether they encourage undesirable changes in agricultural techniques (especially relating to increased pesticide use). They might also be faulted for their potential to disrupt social and economic relationships. Whatever else they do, GMOs appear to concentrate economic power in the hands of certain players over others.

Given that these debates represent an increasingly well-trodden path, let’s focus for a moment in a different place. Let’s focus not on the ethics of GMO’s – or what from now will have to be called bioengineered organisms – but on the ethics of being informed.

In a discussion of his book After Nature: A New Politics for the Anthropocene in the New Boston Review, legal scholar Jedediah Purdy asks whether we will fall into the future through “drift and inadvertence or from deliberate, binding choice.” Purdy suggests that will live in a time that puts particularly acute demands on the need for democratic participation. These democratic choices must be open and informed.

The types of choices available to humanity in the Anthropocene are perhaps more consequential than they have ever been. In The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World, I have made the case that the technologies now at our fingertips are capable of getting under the surface and rewiring the earth in ways that are unprecedented in planetary history. Technology does not just work at the earth’s surface any more. It now gets under the surface and into its “metabolism.”

Such changes to the fundamental stuff of nature should not be taken lightly. John Stuart Mill called nature “the cradle of our thoughts and aspirations.” Practices such as genetic modification, gene editing, and gene drives provide the capacity to reconfigure biological nature according to human designs. The human cradle is clearly changing and changing fast.

Some of these reconfigurations might be hugely valuable. But it is imperative that none of them are taken lightly.

Hannes Flo

By the end of the open discussion period, less than 14,000 comments on the new proposal had been received. Yet more than three hundred million Americans eat food that comes in packaging.

One can’t help wonder whether the public is being provided with enough opportunity for input on the character of the food they put into their mouths. The Grocery Manufacturers Association have applauded the proposed set of rules for labeling “bioengineered food” while simultaneously affirming the “ongoing commitment of our member companies to providing consumers with the transparency they need to make informed product choices.”

Whether this proposal for the labeling of GMOs is transparent enough is questionable. Whether it is intentionally misleading or not is also worth considering. Drift and inadvertence is always helped along by shadows and obscurity.

It’s Independence Day. If any decision is important enough to demand a free and informed choice, the ability to understand what we eat must surely be one of them.

Crop image by Hannes Flo


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: