First Principles & GMOs

It’s been a banner few days for Washington State here at The Classical Liberals. Earlier this week the 42nd state made an appearance in a short post about renewable energy and batteries; this time it’s genetically modified organisms.

On Tuesday, Washington State residents voted against Initiative 522, which, “would have made the state the first in the nation to require labeling of genetically engineered foods” (pre-election coverage from The Economist here). To date we’ve managed to assiduously avoid posting much content that would actually seem to address the intellectual tradition our masthead references (I doubt John Locke had much of an opinion on turbo folk), so Tuesday’s vote presented an opportunity to remedy that worth taking.

On a first principles basis (informed largely by classical liberalism. See, the remedying is happening), I am inclined to favor less, rather than more, state involvement in markets. To be sure, states have an important role to play in facilitating markets’ operation, whether by providing physical security, enforcing contracts, or ensuring the consistent application of the rule of law. Market failure is also a real thing, and a real thing which can be corrected (I use the term loosely) by state intervention. But by and large my intuition gravitates towards letting markets operate as freely as possible.

In this context, GMO labeling presents an intriguing real life thought experiment. On the one hand, labeling requirements represent a significant intrusion of the state in the food market. They impose direct costs on food producers by forcing them to audit supply chains, possibly reconfigure them and/or production processes, and disrupt and readjust labeling and packaging operations (in addition to regulatory compliance costs). On the other hand, there is a degree of information asymmetry and thus market failure, since absent labels consumers can’t be reasonably expected to determine the genesis of their vegetables, meats, and other purported Franken-products.

Further complication stems from the fact that no serious evidence exists to suggest that GMOs are harmful to humans. We’ve been ingesting them for a while (The Economist article suggests well over 20 years), and I suppose it’s possible that in 30 years an entire generation of Americans who grew up eating steroid-injected tomatoes will develop bizarre untreatable cancers, but…I doubt it.* So there do not seem to be obvious health reasons which suggest the necessity of GMO labeling.

That leaves us again with the principle of the thing. I imagine one could be (who knows, maybe all of Initiative 522’s supporters were?) a proponent of GMO labeling and also completely accepting of the absence of negative consequences associated with GMOs, solely on the basis of, “consumers ought to be able to make informed decisions about what they are putting into their bodies.” That’s a pretty reasonable stance to take. But I’m not sure it does enough work to get us all the way to state-mandated GMO labeling.

If we can’t tell GMOs from non-GMOs without labeling, and they have no negative consequences, then mandatory GMO labeling is essentially imposing nontrivial regulatory and compliance costs on firms and increasing state involvement in markets so a few baristas in Seattle can enjoy the psychic satisfaction of knowing their vegetables were produced in a needlessly resource intensive way.** If we can tell the two types apart without labels then mandating labels is unhelpful, redundant, silly, a boon to the label-making industry. In either case consumer knowledge seems like weak tea. So for those of you scoring at home, I’m happy to see Initiative 522 defeated, but I don’t think I would have had the grounds to get too worked up had it passed.

*Also, futzing with the genetic makeup of various crops has contributed enormously to the world’s ability to feed more of itself than it used to, but this is really neither here nor there for the purposes of our discussion
**Alright that’s not entirely fair, but the broader point stands; if you can’t tell the difference who gives a shit? At this point you’re getting pretty metaphysical regarding, say, the tomato-ness of your tomatoes