The Psychic Benefits of non-GM Foods

Unless you, too, happened to see the Subaru (at least, I think it was a Subaru. The story is so archetype-ally appealing if it’s a Subaru) cruising through Ann Arbor the other day with a pro-GMO labeling sticker on the back window, this post will come as a complete non-sequitur.* But it contains a question that is, if not useful, at least interesting to consider. Last year I wrote:

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.**

**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

I was pretty dismissive of the psychic satisfaction argument last year, but what if that is actually a decent reason to mandate GMO labeling? After all, if you can sue for emotional distress I suppose it’s not prima facie obvious that hypothetical GMO-induced anxiety over food consumption wouldn’t be cause enough to force food suppliers to avoid inflicting it by identifying products with GMO components. The following is admittedly a little made up – I am not a litigator etc – but I think the contours of its reasoning are plausible.**

An initial question might be, on what basis could you employ emotional distress to reasonably implement a labeling regulatory regime? One answer might be, if you succeeded in winning a civil suit against and substantial damages from a major food supplier like Walmart. To succeed in doing so, these conditions would have to be met:

  1. Defendant acted intentionally or recklessly; and
  2. Defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous; and
  3. Defendant’s act is the cause of the distress; and
  4. Plaintiff suffers severe emotional distress as a result of defendant’s conduct

And presumably your argument might be something like: if Walmart has been proven in this case to have acted recklessly and outrageously, surely this is behavior that is worth eradicating via regulation.

In a vacuum that story seems appropriate – I would imagine that is how large portions of the American regulatory regime came about. A company was ruled in court to have had a duty to refrain from xyz reckless behavior despite there not being laws against it, and on the basis of that ruling laws were passed to explicitly prohibit that behavior in the future. But of course our hypothetical case would not be litigated in a vacuum, it would be litigated in a contemporary court room. And so we have to ask how plausible it is that a current jury would find Walmart’s failure to provide GMO labeling as reckless, extreme, and outrageous.

I would submit that the answer is, not very plausible.** Because in the absence of factual, scientific reasons to fear GMOs on health and safety grounds, what reasonable duty does Walmart have to inform its customers of its foods’ GMO content? It would take a drastic shift in social conceptions of what we expect from our grocery suppliers to argue that the Walmarts of the world have an active responsibility to provide that sort of information.

Right now, things like buying organic food, eating at farm-to-table restaurants where the pedigree of all the dead animals on your table has been rigorously determined, buying fair trade coffee or clothing – these are all viewed essentially as consumption choices. Consuming that way is more costly, and doing so is thus viewed as the preserve of the rich, or at the very least of those who are willing to pay for peace of mind. For something like diamonds, it actually makes sense (and is indeed moral) to say, “consumers shouldn’t have to pay for peace of mind,” because the alternative (in which consumers do pay for peace of mind) is a market that causes deaths.*** But since GMOs lack that tangible connection to negative (or in the case of conflict diamonds, truly horrible) outcomes, there’s no reason for the default consumer option to be one that facilitates avoiding them, especially when shifting the market to that standard would impose real costs. To be fair, you can in some sense understand how somebody might view the current state of affairs as both binary and arbitrary – that is, the default status quo could, depending on social norms regarding food provision, either be to provide GMO labeling or to not – and right now it is to not do so as much because of social norms regarding consumption choices and the responsibilities of food providers as anything else. If you do take that view, I can see how you might want to convince people we should have different norms, but I can’t see you being very successful; how many Americans actively want to legislate away Walmart’s cheap food in the service of psychic satisfaction?

*I guess there’s also some continuity if you recall that around this time of year last year I wrote about GMOs – I’m thinking of making it an annual thing
**Many thanks to my blog coauthor for explaining the finer points of torts as this post was prepared
***This is in no way intended to trivialize the very real tragedy of conflict diamonds, but the phrase “deaths over diamonds” would be a great album or band name