A fascinating conflict is brewing in Europe over stringent EU rules for labeling of "Frankenfoods" - agricultural products that have been genetically modified. Gene splicing of various kinds is used to increase yields, to improve resistance to herbicides (so they harm only weeds and not crops), to enable crops to withstand weather extremes, and so on.
The European Union basically requires all such foods to be labeled unless they meet a virtually impossible standard of proof-of-safety to consumers and the environment. Foreign, and especially American, producers are incensed at these requirements and are insisting that the EU rules violate trade treaties that guarantee fair access for foreign agricultural products.
The claims of the marketers seem, to me, to be completely correct yet completely beside the point. I concur with their claim that there is not a shred of evidence that genetically modified (GM) foods are any more dangerous to consumers or to the environment than traditional crops, or even that they are in any way substantively different than hybrid crops.
Creating hybrids, a staple of agriculture for thousands of years, is after all also a kind of genetic engineering.
But at the heart of their argument to be released from labeling requirements there is a glaring paradox. On the one hand, they claim that there is nothing for consumers to object to in GM crops. Yet at the same time they complain that they will lose market share if they are required to label.
In business ethics, the assumption generally is that "transparency is the best policy". If the consumer doesn't mind GM foods, then labelling won't harm market share. If they do mind, then it is only fair to inform them about what they're buying.
This whole conflict seems to be a tempest in a teacup. The labeling requirements may very well be arbitrary and unfair, yet they also are quite harmless. The growers, like any other innovator who has a new product, have a responsibility to educate the consumer about the advantages of their products. They should proudly label their products: "Grown from specially genetically modified crops which use only a third the herbicide of conventional methods;" or, "Our patented scientific method enables us to provide you, the customer, with a tastier tomato," and so on.
Intuition suggests, and research supports, that labeling requirements don't affect sales beyond the very short run. If the customer really minds, she will find out even if you don't label and if she doesn't mind sales won't be harmed even if you do label. For example, much research suggests that the frightening warning labels on cigarettes have no impact on sales among smokers. (Though they may have an impact in discouraging people from beginning to smoke.) I think that EU regulations on labeling of Frankenfoods, like so many EU regulations, are silly and superfluous, but ultimately harmless. I don't see any objection to requiring the producers of these foods to take the same responsibility borne by any innovator to educate the buying public about the unique characteristics of new products.
The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute located in the Jerusalem College of Technology. He is also a rabbi.