Ethicist says consumers have a right to labelling of GM foods

Despite scientific consensus that genetically modified foods are safe, 
consumers are understandably concerned

Consumer concern about genetically modified food may not be science based, but it’s a natural reaction and farmers have to get used to it, says an agricultural ethicist.

Andrew Kernohan pointed to an early (although never commercialized) example of GM food — a tomato modified with a flounder gene in order to give it increased frost tolerance.

“There is a certain yuck factor,” the adjunct professor of philosophy at Dalhousie University said at the recent Livestock Genomics in Alberta conference.

That alone means consumers are going to be wary because “disgust is… fundamental to our existence,” he said.

“It’s what prevents us from eating things that are bad for us.”

It’s that gut instinct — rather than sound science — that consumers rely on when evaluating GM food products. Today, 64 countries require labelling of GM foods, and that’s not a bad thing, said Kernohan.

“The final decision over what you put in your body — right or wrong — is a right that people have,” he said. “Human dignity and human respect go deeply into that.”

He compared GM labelling to a visit to a doctor.

“When you go into your (doctor) and consent to a treatment plan, you want all the information,” said Kernohan. “You want to know what’s going to happen to you and why it’s being done.

“That’s just like the (GM) label.”

Asking people to eat GM foods without their knowledge or consent is reminiscent of how the medical profession operated prior to the 1970s, he said. Up until then, “doctors basically told patients what to do.”

“There was no notion of informed consent, no control by the patient over what was happening to their body.”

Eventually, this led to a paradigm shift in medical bioethics toward the idea that patients should be given the information they need to provide informed consent.

“That applies also to food products,” he said. “Consumers are putting things into their bodies and should be treated like doctors treat patients.

“You do have to respect the autonomy of the people who you’re asking to eat this stuff.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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