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Towards transparent food: market economics and GMO labeling

One of the great strengths of a capitalistic democracy is that not only do we have an opportunity to cast our vote at the polls once or so a year but daily in the marketplace of commerce. The goods and services we collectively support persist, while those we do not fade away. Like the political process, a market-based economy's vitality and relevance relies on informed consent.

All sustainable systems, be they biologic, political or economic, rely on self-correcting mechanisms to evolve or adapt to changing conditions. For markets, the absence of whole, complete and timely information can cause breakdowns in the self-correcting mechanisms and lead to inefficiencies and harmful distortions.

The doctrine of transparency in our governmental and financial institutions is central to how and why they work. A transparency policy and the flow of information it allows is the engine of self-correction. The information that transparent self-correcting systems provide helps us as citizens, investors and consumers to make better decisions.

As this is true for government and financial institutions, so is it for food. There is little in this world that is more intimate or more important to the human experience than the food we eat. Food, in its many and varied forms, is the largest business on the planet. It touches every human life and in many ways its quantity, character and quality distinguish wealth from poverty, joy from despair, and health from illness.

Food systems are dynamic and naturally in constant change. It is imperative that this change be guided by functioning self-correcting systems because, while some ideas or changes represent true advances, others inevitably lead to dead ends and are best abandoned. How markets know the difference is by the free and open flow of information – information made possible by policies of transparency. Are GMO foods a threat to human health or to the environment? It may be we do not know yet. What we do know is that incomplete transparency is a threat to the proper or healthy functioning of market economies, and that a healthy economy is an intrinsic societal goal.

As to the question of the manufacturers’ freedom of speech interests, it is my view that this is not a First Amendment issue but simply a business marketing challenge. For markets to function efficiently, it is incumbent upon food makers to fully inform consumers. If a process or ingredient comes with public questions or concerns, the manufacturer has the opportunity to tell their story and make the case why the process or ingredient is either neutral, makes the product better, or less expensive. In this there is nothing new; telling the story is the common work of all businesses. As to the question of whether people have the right to know what is in their food, the question is, at its essence, teleological.

Having said that, not everything we value is empirical, and in this way, I think people do have a right to know what is in their food. I want to know what is in my food. All of this seems to be a fascinating example of a convergence of powerful contemporary political themes. On the one hand, the GMO labeling debate has all of the hallmarks of a liberal progressive agenda for the expansion of government. And in many ways it is.

It is also true that, seen through the prism of market theory, a GMO labeling requirement would reinforce important market signals, which is a central tenant of conservative capitalism.

I believe that transparency and the informed consent that follows from it are foundational elements of good government, sound financial institutions and healthy market economies. For these reasons I believe GMO labeling is in our collective self-interest.

 

Schenk lives in Warren. He is the founder of American Flatbread.


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