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Prop 37, GMOs, Labeling And The Nature Of Rights

Tonya Antle, whose retirement we trumpeted here, sent a video link to Frieda Caplan, who we first wrote about in Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS in this cover story, and, most recently, co-chaired, with Bruce Peterson of Wal-Mart fame, the 2011 University Exchange Program at The New York Produce Show and Conference.

Frieda sent the video link to, in alphabetical order, the Pundit, Bryan Silberman and Tom Stenzel, asking for comments.

The topic: GMOs, which we just dealt with in the context of a California ballot initiative, which ultimately failed. We titled the piece, DECISIONS FOR ELECTION DAY: From California’s Proposition 37 (GMO Labeling) To The Presidential Election Coming Down To Maine’s Potato Growers.

Now that the pro-labeling contingent has been rejected by the voters of California, they hope to achieve through the bureaucracy what they were not able to achieve through the ballot box. They want the FDA to require the labeling of foods that are made with genetically modified ingredients.

An organization identified as “Just Label it! We have the right to know” has gotten together a group of stars to make a video:

Having prominent names willing to speak out for your cause is attention-getting, but it does not mean that the proponents are necessarily right.

The first issue is that, somehow, everything is now a “right,” and this is troubling. If it is a desire, then we can negotiate; we can trade off. Somehow we can probably find a way to co-exist. If, however, something is a “right,” then we can’t negotiate, can’t discuss; as such “rights” proliferate, it becomes harder and harder to sustain a civil society.

We would say the advocates here are misunderstanding the nature of “rights”. The right that must be defended here is the right to decline to purchase something. If these people want labels, and vendors don’t provide them, this Pundit will fight to the death to defend their right not to be compelled to buy that product.

If these individuals do not want to purchase foods that have not been labeled as to their GMO content, they should stop doing so. They could purchase organic, which is GMO-free, or they could petition other companies to label things. If other companies are non-responsive, they could start their own company and capture what they claim is a large market.

These are their rights — to refuse to purchase product they don’t approve of; to petition others to do as they would prefer; to launch a business that creates the products they want.

Note that as far as the rest of the population goes, these “rights” only require us to refrain from interfering. We cannot force feed them product they don’t want, we cannot tape their mouths shut so they cannot communicate their preferences; we cannot restrict them from manufacturing and marketing the products they want available.

In contrast, their notion of rights implies that others somehow have obligations to do the things these people happen to want.

Of course, our society is complex, and we compel various activities for various reasons, but from a rights-based perspective, why shouldn’t Joe have the “right” to make up a smoothie and when asked if he used GMO ingredients, simply refuse to disclose. Why can’t he say: “I choose not to reveal whether I used GMO ingredients or not. If that is problematic for you, you should buy elsewhere.”

So the rights based argument seems frivolous. There is no “right” to know, because others don’t have an obligation to tell you. They certainly don’t have an obligation to spend money on labeling, etc.

Of course, something may not be a ”right” but still may be desirable from a policy point of view. The problem here is that the proposal to label GMO foods is completely ad hoc.

Usually, what you want to do from a public-policy perspective is create a rule — a standard — for, in this case, when labeling should be compelled. Then, anytime someone proposes that something be labeled, you can compare it against the rule and get an answer.

We basically have that approach. We label things, generally, because a label is helpful. If something is dangerous or a poison, we require labeling.

We require nutrition labeling on certain items because, if used properly, knowing the calorie count or sodium count can help people to eat in a more healthy manner.

What is most troubling about the advocacy in this area is that it is an effort made on behalf of a prejudice. If the advocates have any evidence that GMOs are not safe, they could assert that they should be labeled — or banned — on that basis.

Equally, if knowledge of GMOs in food was helpful to consumers, say if by avoiding GMOs they could be healthier, this would also be compelling as a reason to consider requiring labeling.

Very specifically, though, the advocates avoid making these claims; they imply vaguely bad things about GMOs but hang their hats on the “right to know.”

There is an old saying among lawyers: If the law is on your side, pound on the law. If the evidence is on your side, pound on the evidence. If nothing is on your side, pound on the table. This focus on the “right to know” is a way of pounding on the table, because they have no evidence that GMOs are dangerous.

If we make public policy based on such table-pounding, we will have a lot of policies, but they won’t help us at all. As Shakespeare wrote:

 “…it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Do we not have any real problems left to confront?

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