Labeling Genetically Modified Food: The Philosophical and Legal Debate

Labeling Genetically Modified Food: The Philosophical and Legal Debate

Labeling Genetically Modified Food: The Philosophical and Legal Debate

Labeling Genetically Modified Food: The Philosophical and Legal Debate


Food products with genetically modified (GM) ingredients are common, yet many consumers are unaware of this. When polled, consumers say that they want to know whether their food contains GM ingredients, just as many want to know whether their food is natural or organic. Informing consumers is a major motivation for labeling. But labeling need not be mandatory. Consumers who want GM-free products will pay a premium to support voluntary labeling.

Why do consumers want to know about GM ingredients? GM foods are tested to ensure safety and have been on the market for more than a decade. Still, many consumers, including some with food allergies, want to be cautious. Also, GM crops may affect neighboring plants through pollen drift. Despite tests for environmental impact, some consumers may worry that GM crops will adversely effect the environment. The study of risk and its management raises questions not settled by the life sciences alone.

This book surveys various labeling policies and the cases for them. It is the first comprehensive, interdisciplinary treatment of the debate about labeling genetically modified food. The contributors include philosophers, bioethicists, food and agricultural scientists, attorneys/legal scholars, and economists.


Consumers are reasonably interested in many facts about food products, from safety to the effects of production on the environment and the economy. Informing consumers is an important social goal, and finding the appropriate means of meeting this goal is a pressing, complex social issue. For example, making a food label informative but not misleading is a complicated matter. Given that most consumers believe that food products do not contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients, is a food label misleading if it does not correct that impression? If a food label states that a food product does not contain GM ingredients, does the label misleadingly suggest that such ingredients are unsafe? A satisfactory position on labeling GM food must attend to these and a host of other complications.

This volume presents the basic science of GM food and then a spectrum of philosophical and legal views about labeling. It guides the reader to an informed opinion about labeling.

Genetically modified corn and soybeans grow on many farms. Some consumers fear the consequences of eating GM food, also known as genetically engineered or bioengineered food. Others fear that GM food crops will damage the environment and hope to vote against them at the supermarket. Various groups want the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require food labels to indicate GM ingredients.The European Union requires such labeling, but the FDA has resisted the arguments for it. The FDA contends that its charter instructs it to label only factors that are significant for health, nutrition, or use. Scientific studies detect no substantial difference between food from traditional crops and from GM crops. The FDA regards genetic modification as immaterial. Hence, in its view, it does not have authority to demand that food labels attend to it. So far, it has issued guidelines only for voluntary labeling of food with GM ingredients.

Corporations and farmers investing in GM crops point out the benefits. Genetically modified corn is resistant to insect pests. Genetically modified soybeans are resistant to herbicides used to kill weeds. If food labels announce GM ingredients, consumers may shun products with those ingredients. If consumers turn away from those products, the industry introducing genetic modifications will suffer. The benefits of GM crops may be postponed or lost altogether.

The issue brings to the fore problems in democratic theory. Some forms of democracy rely on elections of representatives. The representatives become informed about proposed laws and use their expertise to promote the public’s interests. Other forms of democracy rely on referenda and additional methods of direct decision making by the public. Advocates of representative democracy . . .

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