Libertarians torn on free markets and Monsanto, GMO policy

Like Sergeant Joe Friday, let's insist on Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, June 9, 2013 ― The issue of GMOs has created an interesting dilemma for many libertarians, placing their belief in free markets in conflict with their natural conservatism and a tendency towards anti-corporate luddism.

This has put some of them in the uncomfortable position of advocating substantial government intervention in agriculture to use force against businesses which are producing genetically modified foods for human consumption. In the name of public health, libertarians who object to every other form of government regulation find themselves demanding coercive regulation of GMOs and companies which produce them, like Monsanto.

SEE RELATED: Even libertarians wrong on Monsanto Protection Act

It’s an interesting conundrum. Genetic modification of foods is hardly new. Men have been hybridizing plants for ten thousand years. So much hybridization has occurred that the original strains of some common plants don’t even exist any longer. This has generally produced better foods and more productive agriculture.

Most modern genetic modification is just an extension or acceleration of this time-tested process. And it works. We can feed more people and feed them better than ever before. Hybrid grain products have ended many of the perennial problems with starvation in the third world. In fact, we only have the luxury to eat organic foods here in the rich part of the world because the availability of high yield genetically modified crops helps keep the rest of the world fed.

What companies like Monsanto do goes a bit further than crossbreeding cows for tastier and tenderer meat, but the basic objective is the same: to produce more and better food to feed the world. Some people are just afraid of big corporations or made very nervous by their use of recombinant gene technology to do this. It certainly goes to a level beyond common crossbreeding and selective culling of a genetic line. 

However, a lot of the fearmongering about GMOs is pure bunk. They are not routinely marketing food with animal or insect genes in it or which incorporates pesticide molecules. Everything which actually goes to market is inspected and certified safe by the USDA, the FDA or the EPA or all three. 

SEE RELATED: March Against Monsanto: GMO protests in 436 cities worldwide (images)

Selling poisonous food makes no sense in terms of the market. Firms need healthy, living consumers in order to continue to sell more and more of their product. If anything, it would be to their benefit to produce crops which make us healthier and more likely to keep eating their products for years to come.

Concerns about GMOs are largely based on fear of the unknown. Even if the intentions of the genetic engineers are good, the potential fallout of their work is unproven, and there is a natural concern that dramatic results could have radical and dangerous side effects, even if there is very little evidence to suggest that the kind of disasters anticipated have ever or will ever happen.

Banning the products of science and experimentation is a dangerous path to follow, especially when motivated by worst-case scenario speculation. The government has a legitimate role in protecting the public from potentially dangerous products, but the jury is still out on most GMOs. There is little or no evidence to suggest that they pose serious dangers, and the benefits have already been clearly demonstrated in higher crop yields and more disease and pest-resistant plants. Suspicion of the process or of the intentions of the companies involved should not be enough to justify the use of government force to ban processes which might prove beneficial or to excuse interference in the free operation of private enterprise.

This is a great example of where civil libertarians should steer towards a middle ground, between those who want to ban products and processes out of irrational fear and those who want no oversight at all. When there is little or no evidence of harm, the sensible solution is to rely on full disclosure to the public. Food packaging should say exactly what the foods are composed of and the process by which they were made, including any genetic modifications of the source organisms.

SEE RELATED: GMO apples may be deregulated by the end of 2013

Put the relevant info on a label, put it on the product and let the consumers decide. Whether the government requires this or it’s done in response to consumer demand, the result will be positive.  If people don’t care enough to  read the label, at least they will have had the opportunity to be informed and have no one to blame but themselves.

The free market comes into play as well. If informed consumers don’t want modified foods they won’t buy them, and those companies will do less business, which will push more sales in the direction of more natural products. If consumers don’t care, they can vote the other way with their dollars.

Of course, any labeling should be neutral and purely factual. This is not an excuse to put scare labeling on these products as we do on tobacco products. Let’s make a deal. I won’t demand a label on homeopathics saying “THIS IS USELESS” in big type if Greenpeace doesn’t try to put “GMOs WILL KILL YOU” or some similar scare message on a loaf of bread. 

Like Sergeant Joe Friday, let’s insist on “just the facts” and let people decide for themselves, and the market will sort it all out.

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Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle has been writing political analysis since the 1980s for newspapers, magazines and now online journals. He is currently Execitive Director of the Center for Foreign Policy Priorities, is on the board of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, and served four years as National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus.

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