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GM foods: our "right to know" at others' cost

This version 13 July 2003, originally published in The Canberra Times, 1 August 2000, as 'Show and tell law a hollow win if battle is already lost'.

The decision has been made. Our politicians have decided the extent to which food products containing genetically modified ingredients will be labelled. The so-called pro-market pollies, such as Prime Minister Howard, held out for an exemption where GM content was less than one per cent. The others demanded labelling where there is any GM content at all.

That the latter won the argument is quite unimportant. The real battle had already been lost.

It was not pro-market to hold out for the one per cent exemption. It was anti-market, and anti free-choice, to require labelling at all.

An AC Nielsen poll that showed that 93% of Australians wanted GM foods to be labelled, and that 65% claimed they wouldn't buy food so labelled. What does this really mean?

Polls are lousy predictors of what people will do in real life. Economists generally assess people's opinions, not by what they say to pollsters, but what they actually do. This is the principle of revealed preference. When labelling begins, will we actually see 65% of grocery shoppers purposely avoiding them? I doubt it very much.

Should 93% of Australians wanting something mean that the power of government ought to be brought to bear? What if 93% of Australians become upset by my occasional comments on these pages? Should the government pass a law to silence me? While many in our community seem unconcerned about restrictions on certain forms of speech, I continue to hope that most oppose blanket silencing of specific individuals.

So we have established that 93% of the population in favour of something does not, in itself, constitute compelling reasons to institute it.

But surely we need the government to protect us from those rapacious food makers and merchants who, after all, are concerned with nothing but profit and will happily poison us if they can turn a profit in the process. As it happens, those heartless capitalists are people. The great majority are barely distinguishable from the mass of we Canberra residents, aside, at the individual level, from their gloriously diverse personal characteristics. Should circumstances have placed any one of us as CEO of a large food maker, would we intentionally poison our customers? I trust the answer is no. We all carry our personal morality into our jobs.

Yet even if we were utterly amoral, we would still remember that customers harmed by our products will cost us dearly through litigation and lost custom from others.

Still, may not those generally good capitalists be mistaken, misled by over-confident "experts"? As a recent editorial in this paper put it, should we "simply shut up and and let 'the experts' get on with the job of transforming lives?" The proposed alternative is to let our policitians continue transforming our lives. The process of transformation is the politician's bread and butter. Every Act of Parliament, or even of our own Legislative Assembly, is intended to transform our lives in some way, large or small.

In general, the genetics "experts" aren't aiming to transform us. It's the politicians who are.

Should we not have the right to know whether our food has been genetically modified? What, after all, if it does turn out to be dangerous? My own opinion on the danger of GM food is worthless since I am not one of those much-derided "experts". Likewise, the opinions of our politicians are worthless on the subject. For what it's worth, as strongly as I oppose governments telling them to do so, I am one of the 93% who would like food manufacturers to label their products as to their GM status. But wanting and passing laws are two different things.

Labelling should be the choice of the makers of the food. They, in turn, will be responsive to their retailers and customers. After all, the decision last year of a major British retail chain, clearly a bunch of greedy capitalists, to refuse to stock any GM foods shows that the market does respond.

If so many people want labels, why aren't there any on products yet? Why don't GM-free foodstuffs already bear labels, (right next to their "Dolphin safe" logos for which, you will recall, no labelling law has ever been passed) attesting to their status? Surely this would make marketing sense.

As it happens, companies are already working on this, but it takes time to gain the necessary assurances from all the ingredient suppliers, many based overseas.

The market moves in fits and starts, sometimes uncomfortably quickly, sometimes with infuriating leisureliness, much to the dissatisfaction of the many in our society who prefer all to march in unison. And are prepared to use the law to make them march their way.

Or both.

© 2000 - Stephen Dawson