BROADWAY, VA. — There's a controversy these days about whether the food industry in the United States should have to say on labels whether products contain genetically modified organisms.
The resolution of this issue should be a no-brainer: Of course they should have to include that information on the labels.
Why? Because there are people who want to know, and they have a right to the information they want.
The food industry argues that there's no good reason for them to want to know. Genetically modified foods are perfectly safe, they claim, a danger neither to the consumer nor to the environments in which they are grown.
My own belief is that the food industry is probably right that safety concerns are unwarranted. I am not likely to avoid buying a product on the basis of its containing genetically modified foods. Nor am I very much troubled by the idea, in principle, that human beings are tampering with the genome of living things we grow for food.
But neither the industry's beliefs nor mine are relevant to the rights of other consumers with different beliefs. It is one of the moral premises of a free economy that people are entitled to decide upon what criteria they will make their decisions.
It is not up to authorities of any kind to dictate to free people what values they can hold important, nor what beliefs they are entitled to hold and to base their choices on.
In this instance, those Americans concerned about the genetic modification of foods are joined by a great many educated and intelligent Europeans. Even if this were not so, these Americans would have a right to hold their beliefs and to be able to act upon them in their role as consumers.
It is, moreover, one of the premises of capitalism that the system will produce an optimal mix of goods guided by the myriad choices of informed consumers expressing their preferences.
This system cannot achieve optimality unless people have the information that's relevant to their preferences.
The food industry argues against the labeling requirement, expressing the fear that these labels will impose a "stigma" on genetically modified foods. In some people's minds, it will; in most, it probably won't.
But however large the group that will boycott genetically modified foods, we should give no weight to this industry argument. The smaller the group, the less the industry needs to worry about it. The larger the group, the more important that a free society let its members vote in the market about what kinds of foods they want to be supplied.
The question of whether it is safe or proper for human beings to tamper with the genetics of the organisms they eat is one that will be fought out in the marketplace of ideas.
Scientists will be providing factual data about environmental or health consequences; ethicists will be debating the morality of exercising such powers over the structures of life.
While we work to resolve these controversies through free inquiry in the marketplace of ideas, freedom should obtain also in that other marketplace where buyers and sellers meet. And in both marketplaces, freedom requires full access to information.
*Andrew Bard Schmookler's latest book is 'Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide' (MIT Press, 1999).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society