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Our lives are frequently and significantly affected by food. Because we must eat to survive, many human cultures have developed with food at their very core. The goal of this podcast is to explore the complexity and nuance of food systems, celebrate the progress we have made, and debate the best ways for humans to proceed forward into the future. 

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Mar 7, 2019

Dr. Jon Herington is a political philosopher of applied ethics focusing mainly on the concept of risk within the fields of science, health, and technology. In today’s discussion we cover the definition of security and what it means to be food secure as well as why simply labeling food as containing genetically engineered ingredients may not actually be in the best interest of individual consumers.

This interview was recorded in late 2018 before the USDA made a final ruling on the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law. The standards have been set since, but we still feel that listeners will find this conversation interesting and useful. More information about labeling requirements can be found at:

For further reference to Dr. Herington’s work, you can check out his personal website:



Food Security and GMO Labeling with Dr. Jon Herington - Philosophy


Hello everybody welcome to the Global Food Systems podcast brought to you by Kansas State University's Office of Research Development I'm Jay Weeks.

Discussion that I've been really looking forward to we have double helping of philosophy today. As always, we have my co host, Scott Tanona from the Department of Philosophy. Hey there. And our guest today is John Harrington, a moral philosopher from the department of philosophy here at K State as well, you may be thinking philosophy, what does that have anything to do with the global food system? Well, let me tell you. His research focuses on moral and political philosophy with an emphasis on public health ethics, emergency ethics and security. This is a really nice opportunity to look at the food system from a perspective that, you know, we might do we don't often consider. So Jon, in your own words, how would you describe yourself?


Well, I'm a political philosopher, working in the department here at Kansas State. And most of my research is in Applied Ethics, and particularly, the ethics of risk. So that involves research on risks from really big global phenomena like climate change and pandemics through to risks from scientific research, and new technologies. And, as we'll probably get into today, a small part of my research has to do with the concept of food security, and some related kind of technological issues like GMO labeling.


So we definitely will be talking a lot about your risks and the work that you do. But how did you get into this initially? Like, what, what sparked your interest in philosophy? And then how did you kind of work your way to where you are now?


So, so in high school, I was part of the debate team at my high school. And as we know, you know, if you've ever participated in high school debate, there's a lot of kind of the kinds of questions that you that you're asked to deal with things like, you know, what should be the limits of free speech? Is there a God? You know, how should we respond to terrorism, these kinds of big questions, and the goal in debate is to these to win, right? It's to score points. Right? I was a terrible debater, because my approach to debating was to try and figure out what the right answer was to the question. And so it's kind of it's kind of tortured by like, a lot of these questions like, well, you know, what is the right answer? When it's free speech? Or how should we respond to terrorism? You know, I would kind of obsess over these questions. And so in a lot of ways that made me a terrible debater.


You ever score points for the other side?


But almost I certainly was kind of exercised by thinking about the objections to my own view and, and wanting to be honest about it. I was a terrible debater. But once I went to university, someone turned me on to the idea that maybe I should take a philosophy course if I was interested in this and the rest is history.


Are those interests? Where does that interest in and sort of the right answer sort of thing? Is that come from parents or is it doesn't you just inherently it was inherent to your being? I guess.


I think it just comes from a kind of natural inquisitiveness, that a lot of people share. It's that same kind of inquisitiveness that I think a lot of scientists have, which is, you know, they want to find out what's real. You know, what's true about the world, philosophers have the same kind of impulse where we kind of want to know what's real and what's true. But when kind of exercised by much more abstract questions in a lot of cases, you know, questions that aren't really easy to adjudicate, just by looking at a set of data, right, or looking at or collecting a bunch of specimens or thinking about kind of empirical facts, although empirical facts are often very important to plus. And so I think, you know, it's just a kind of the same impulse that a lot of people have, who go into a research work, which is just, we want to know what's true.


We keep on applying it, though. We never give up as philosophers, right? So it's important to just say I don't want to, I'm not going to try to give answers here. So I should let John speak for himself, too. But it's one of the things that I think is interesting about philosophy is that there are a lot of really important questions and I think Jon shares the same view. I should say, also, by the way, before I keep on talking is, John and I are working on some projects together, too. So there are, there are things that we do that are quite separate, independent, but there's a few projects that we're working on together. The so I know, he's got some similar views about some things, right. So a lot of these some different lenses. For sure, we know some of these too, right? Yeah. So the one of the things that's interesting, though, about a lot of the questions is that they deal with not just like the facts in the world, but also conceptually, how we thinking about things and values, right. So I think some of the things that I want to ask you about are about like, what, what certain things mean, basically, right, sort of a big philosophical question, right? So you want to say something about, like, how you got turned on to, in particular social political issues and sort of concepts of like security and health and food issues?


Yeah. So, you know, I think I just want to echo, of course, what you're saying, which is that that philosophy, you know, a lot of the work that philosophy does, when we're talking about kind of these concrete practical questions, we should back up a bit and say, you know, one question that people have is like, why is philosophy useful to practical questions at all? You're interested in these abstract questions, how do they apply to these practical questions? And I think that the discussion that Scott just gave us, gives us a way of answering that. One is that, you know, a lot of these practical questions rely on unexamined concepts, like, what is health? Or what is security? Or they rely on? hidden value assumptions? Right? You know, is it? Is it or is it good to be maximally healthy, right? Is it always the best thing to be maximally help healthy? You know, is security always valuable? And philosophers are very good at untangling first what these concepts might mean. And also untangling those hidden value assumptions that people have, and trying to make sense of them so that people can make better decisions for themselves about what they really care about.


So let's do that start to do that. On one thing, let's talk about security. Because I was just at a talk recently sponsored by global food systems, or at least partly sponsored, fully sponsored was


 Yeah, I mean, it's fully sponsored. Okay. 


Our speaker, the speaker there was talking about the potential for global food crisis, but then also said, a global food security crisis. Alright. So like, there's an extra word in there security, and you mentioned security. So I guess, sort of as the philosopher then sort of, like, what is security? And like, What is food security in particular, like, maybe you should say something about that?


Security is one of these like, kind of politically very powerful words, it motivates people to do things, right. When you hear the term security, you think, well, this is an extremely important, your initial response to think this must be really important. But it turns out that kind of defining the concept of security can be quite challenging. And there's been not a lot written on this over the kind of 20th century. My kind of take on security is that it's about the reliability of your basic needs. Right? So I'll get I'll give you an example of what I mean by talking a little bit about food security, right? So if you think about the FiOS definition of food security, which roughly put is something like it's someone is food secure when they have reliable, consistent access to sufficient food to meet their basic dietary needs, okay. What that means is that you can meet your basic needs kind of come what may, regardless of the circumstances, right, it's regardless of what you face in your life or the kinds of changes in market conditions or the change In the weather or the changes in your job status, or the changes in your family size, you can continue to meet your basic dietary needs. And we can distinguish that from two different concepts. One is how foods is secure, you can be distinguished from, like, what your actual food intake is, right? So day to day, right? You might, on Thursday, you might have to, we'll just think in calories because it's easier to think in calories, day to day on Thursday, on Monday, you might have 2000 calories of food. On Tuesday, you might have only 1000 calories of food, because you have difficulty finding appropriate food. On Wednesday, you might feast might be 4000 calories. And so there we're measuring your actual intake of food. Okay. The other thing that we might be interested in is your average intake of food, right? So might care about, like, over a week or over a month? Like what's your average daily caloric intake? That might be you know, regardless of how variable your intake is, right, it could come out to the 2000 calories. Food security is concerned with whether or not you meet a basic minimum each day. And in particular, what's your risk of not being able to meet?


So it's not just about what you're actually meeting, but about the potential that you might not be able to meet in a future? Is that right? Okay. Yeah, so this is we're not just worried about whether some people are, are starving or don't have enough food, we're worried about what the risk is that they might end up in that situation, even if they're doing okay, right now. Or the risk of they might be there tomorrow or something like that?


Yeah, that's right. Because a lot of people are able to meet the are able to actually meet their basic caloric needs each day. But they only do so because they're very lucky, right? They do so because they have kind of last minute, something happened, something swoops in to save them from styling that day, or starving that month. So in that sense, that they're a food insecure that whether or not they're going to meet their basic caloric needs, is really uncertain, right? Like, they could as a good, a good chance that they won't be able to do that. And even if they do, in fact, luckily, meet their basic needs, perhaps because some charitable organization swoops in and helps them or because the weather turns at the last minute and they're able to, you know, the weather turns in the last couple of days of the growing season and they're able to like grow enough food to meet their needs for the next month. They were incredibly insecure. Their ability to meet their car.


So is there a difference than if you turn from thinking about just somebodies? Let's say that the percentage of people who are not getting enough calories to sustain them, right? Well or to keep them healthy anyway, if you switch from that question and asking of our food systems how are we not? Who is not being served well by our current food systems and or the current market, you know? And, their income levels etc. Right to the question of who is actually food insecure? Right. So what changes when you move from like the one question to like who's starving right now to the second question, who's food insecure?


Part of it is that you're, you're now capturing a logic class, you're not now capturing a larger group of people whose lives are being shaped by their access to food, right? Whether or not you are on average, malnourished, right? Or whether or not you're able to kind of meet your caloric needs is one thing, right? That's one thing that seriously shapes might seriously shape your opportunities, your well being your health. But another thing that might seriously shape your opportunities and well being is whether or not you can rely upon your ability to meet those needs. Right? So we're shifting from when you think about food security, rather than just an inability to meet on when you're shifting from now. nourishment to Food Security. You're shifting to think about a kind of broader class a bigger problem, right that people face.


And so it's a bigger problem because these people have the potential or greater potential for being malnourished, like soon, right? Do we care about it otherwise, like, I think one of the things that people say with respect to the security, like even if you're actually severe in that edge position where you're actually like managing right now, to get all the calories you need. But if you're insecure, it means, like you said, you have to spend a lot of time thinking about this and working at it to get it done. Right. So there's a risk, but there's also some costs for being here. Right? Is that one of the things we should be caring about?


Yeah, so one reason you care about food insecurity is because there's a higher risk of being malnourished, right? That's the basic reason you might care about it. But there's all sorts of other benefits to security that we can kind of immediately appreciate. Right? I'll give you two. The first is, along with insecurity of any important good, comes a lot of anxiety, right? So to give you an example, if any of you have ever worked on a zero hours casual contract, right, if you ever worked a casual job, or you've ever worked as a server, where your hours are not fixed week to week, and if you're if you've relied upon that to pay your rent, one of the things that I always experienced as a casual workout, it was a tremendous amount of anxiety on Thursday, when the outshoot came out. Because if I didn't get the hours that I needed to make rent,


or the right shift, or the right or whatever, or the right shifts, or whatever, 


I would be in serious trouble. Right. Now, it so happens that I did in fact, always get enough hours. Barely sometimes, but by and large, I got enough hours, right. But that didn't. The fact that I in fact, actually got enough hours didn't alleviate my anxiety each Thursday, because the risk of not getting enough hours was still there, right. And similar thing happens with food and security, if you even if you're able to meet your nutritional needs. If you are food insecure, you constantly have this risk weighing upon your shoulders that you won't be able to, to grow enough food to eat, or put or make enough money to purchase food at market prices. And that for a lot of people, I think has a kind of substantial mental health burden.


So how much does the role of perception play into something like this? And Azuro? Is there a way that, you know, people can maybe manage their anxieties so that, you know, even if they are on the cusp of insecurity, they can still improve their well being? Is that? Is that something you work with?


Yeah, so I think there is a lot of the benefits of security come from the kind of subject your subjective sense of security, what your how, what your subjective, how you appreciate or understand the risk. And as we know, it's often the case that people are pretty poor judges of the risk of some event occur.


Just look at your perception of weather, right? I mean, people get upset when it's, you know, 80% chance that rain and it doesn't rain.


Right. And this is like the plane versus the car to thing right. shootings are right, yeah, right.


Right. Right. So your planes are massively safer to ride in than cars, according to the statistics, even so many of us have a kind of anxious feeling when we bought a plane in a way that we don't when we bought a car. And I think there's two things to say about this. It's true, of course, that our subjective, what matters here for our people's anxieties, their subjective appreciation of the risk, and often that's at odds or can be at odds with what the actual risks are. It's not always though. And in fact, I would argue that often unless being objectively food secure is kind of necessary in order for you to feel secure. The second thing to say is, you know, we would like it to be the case that we could simply educate people who are already food secure about this fact, right, so that we could go up to people and say, look like, there's no need to worry, you. You know, given the insurance schemes, we have available, given the kind of charitable organizations that exist or given the kinds of, you know, social insurance schemes that that, that we have, you will always be able to meet your basic food needs, that's something that we've committed to. The problem, of course, is that telling people information like that is often not very effective. You need to do a fair bit of thinking about how you kind of educate people about this, this issue.


This is about people who are actually food secure, but they're worried like they're anxious, right? Sort of, okay. 


So, and I should say, that's gonna be a relatively small boss of people.


But we can look at this from from another angle, right, and people who think that they are food secure, but you know, the food system could be a little bit more precarious 


Right, so in fact, maybe more of us are food insecure? And in at least some sense, I think.


Yeah, yeah, I think that's probably, although I do not have any survey data to back this up. But I would suggest that it's likely that there are more people who are food insecure, but do not believe that they're food insecure, than there are people who are in fact food secure, but believe themselves to be food and security.


So one of these things gets down to sort of what you mean by secure. Right. So and I think that's something that we might want to ask you a little bit more about. And I think also, we should, we should ask questions about what you think about sort of the general food system, right, sort of like the you know, there are, there are plenty of conditions under which since we get so much of our food from from far away, right, you know, relatively far away that, you know, there are a lot of sort of catastrophic breakdowns, that sort of where we would be like we would be, you know, and have a tough shape, and have a tough time delivering our own food. Right, you know, so. So I want to ask you about that thing. But first, I think you said I don't want to lose the second one. You said there were two reasons to worry about food security, right? So like, there was the one was the anxiety, shake, you know, say, hey, look, being food insecure comes at a cost, like you're anxious, and you have to be worried about this. But there's a second, so we missed that somewhere.


Yeah, so  that first part, the anxiety is a kind of like, it's the emotional response that we have to insecurity. But there's a kind of deeper worry about insecurity, which is that it really complicates our ability to form and pursue our plans. Right, especially if we if there's insecurity of basic needs. I'll give you an example. Right? Imagine you are a farmer, and you're deciding whether to plant a corn crop or a cotton crop. Right. If you plant the corn crop, then you can be reasonably sure that you'll be able to, to meet your basic food needs right corners, the subsistence crop your so long as it grows and produces a reasonable harvest. But I should say, depending on the size of your crop, you probably won't be able to meet much more than your basic food themes. Cotton, on the other hand, is a cash crop, it's likely that you'll be able to grow enough cotton and sell it at a reasonable enough price that you'll be able to both meet your basic food needs and make a substantial profit. But there's also a risk that the market for cotton might collapse, you might have difficulty growing enough cotton, and then you really won't be able to meet your basic food needs. In that kind of a situation. If you decide to grow the cotton crop, you're left with severe uncertainty about whether or not you're going to be able to meet your basic food needs. Right. And that's going to ripple through all their other plans. Right. So should you buy another tractor? Well, it depends upon whether or not you're going to need to store up a little bit of money to make sure to hedge against or insure against the possibility of your cotton crop failing. Should you get married? Well, if you can't meet your basic food needs, maybe you should delay getting married until you're able to ensure that you can provide for a family should you have another child should you send your child to school or should they stay at home to help you plant a second food subsistence crop to insure against the failure of your cotton crop. The idea being that if you're insecure with respect to a basic need like food, that kind of complicates the entire universe of your life, right? All of your other plans become your infected with this risk that you won't be able to meet your basic needs.


So for the everyday person that's food insecure, not not with respect to like the farmer, but sort of somebody, right, working on the job buys our food from the grocery store, etc, but doesn't always have enough money to do it and sort of has to think about these things in a way that that their food insecure, they don't they're not sure how much they're going to get the next day, right. So part of what I hear you saying is that we should be caring about that as much as we should be caring about it, we should be caring about that fact that there are people who because their food insecure, that affects their livelihood, their well being right, their ability to plan their ability to do things, right. And we should care about that as in addition to caring about people who are actually malnourished right now. Yeah.


Yeah, that's, that's right. So the kind of basic fact that if someone's food insecure, if someone in someone's income is variable enough that they may not be able to buy enough food. And we don't have a kind of social insurance scheme like snap or a scheme where, which enables people to always have access to the basic food needs that they require, then those people are going to have to constantly strategize about how they're going to use their meager savings. And in particular, they're going to have to hold back some resources in order to insure against the possibility that they won't have enough money next week to buy basic groceries. So instead of investing in their plans, or investing in a small business, or investing in their education, or their kids education, they have to hold back $100- $200 to ensure that they are able to meet their basic needs, week to week.


Well, there's even some evidence to suggest to that not only does this disrupt plans like that, but actually having this background, you know, anxiety or worry, or inability to plan actually impacts cognitive ability to write. So it's an additional handicap, so that they, you know, even though you have this tremendously complex issue, your cognitive faculties allow you to not deal with that as effectively as you would otherwise. Right.


Yeah, yeah, there's some really great behavioral economics, and cognitive science literature that's, that's been developed in the last couple of years, both in the context of modern urban societies that looked at the cognitive effect of poverty, and how being poor seems to kind of, or being unable or at risk of meeting your basic needs seems to diminish your capacity to think clearly, essentially. And also, there's been a lot of good work in the developed world, as well as the developing world as well, that's looked at, you know, how this kind of cognitive loading affects the lives of people like subsistence farmers and people who are trying to invest in their communities.


And by the cognitive load, I mean, part of it's just because you have to spend time thinking about like, how you're going to get the next meal, right. I mean, that's like, that takes up part of your time. Yeah. So what are so what are the biggest, like ethical and social political issues surrounding like food? And maybe you know, health more broadly, because you're talking about food in the context of health and well being both right. So like, what are the biggest issues there with respect to our systems and food systems?


So I think like you can't really talk about the social and political philosophy of food without talking about it is a kind of microcosm of broader social and political trends, right? Food Insecurity is both a kind of cause and a symptom of a number of really complex kind of social and political problems, right. And so when I think about food as a social and political topic, I think that the kind of number one thing to think about is a problem of absolute deprivation. So there's, there's a lot of people, roughly 800 million last time that FAO Did, did a survey that are severely malnourished, right? They're unable to meet their basic food needs. And, that's not a problem of production. In the aggregate, worldwide, were able to, to produce enough food to feed everyone adequately. It's a problem of distribution. It's a problem of how we distribute the food resources that we generate in abundance, really. To my mind, that's the kind of like number one bottom is, how do we think about ways of alleviating that absolute deprivation? 


That our fair and just, which is not just about how do we produce more food? Right? 


Because no, I mean, it's it's not just about how we produce more food, in part because of other issues that I think are equally important. So the kind of second big issue that I find when it comes to food and social and political philosophy is this trade off between the well being of currently living people, people who are, who are living around the world now. And the well being of future generations. At the moment, our food production processes, relatively fossil fuel intensive, it requires that we put a large amount of carbon up into the atmosphere, and that you might argue, ultimately undermines the well being of future generations. Or at least there's a serious trade off between feeding everyone now. Right, and being able to feed everyone in the future. And I think that that kind of trade off is that kind of trade off that social and political philosophers find really kind of interesting is one way to put it but at alarming is another way to put it as a kind of deep problem that we haven't I think grappled with sufficiently yet.


Is that question, so how dependent are those kinds of questions on how able we are globally to increase our production? Right? Sort of? Because one answer is just sort of well, right, we hope we figure it out and just figure out ways to produce more food in the future as population grows, etc. Right. But you're talking about sort of other issues that are sort of kind of run alongside that?


Yeah. Yeah. So I think, like, we shouldn't discount for the fact that, you know, producing more food is potentially part of the solution to this problem, right. Or at least producing more food in particular areas of the world, right. And places that are closer to those are more accessible to those who are now nourished, right, producing different kinds of food crops, or transitioning towards food crops that are or reallocating the way in which we currently use food crops. So perhaps traditional transitioning away from using a large amount of grain for meat production, out reallocating grain production or towards caloric intake amongst the malnourished. So I think, definitely producing more food might be part of the solution. But a lot of it is just about how we produce the food, where we produce the fish, and how we distribute what we produce right now.


So some of these problems are political, and could be potentially influenced by governmental influences. But also some of it, it's personal choice, right? You know, if you want to eat less meat or more meat, that's, you know, when you go to the grocery store, that's so how do we approach some of these problems from an individual or governmental issue? And where's the balance there?


Yeah, so I guess as a social and political philosopher, this is like one of the classic questions of social and political philosophy, like how should we balance? How much power should the government have over our individual choices? There's two kinds of questions what are our obligations as individuals, right? Do we have like moral obligations to reduce our meat consumption or change the way in which we purchase food so that it is grown and harvested more locally or is contributes to helping to feed the globally nourished? So they're our kind of personal moral obligations, and they might actually, hopefully shape our choices? And this is the second question, which is what happens when we when we collectively fail to meet those obligations, if we collectively are unable or unwilling to do what we ought to do? Is there a role for the state to step in and kind of not just in the right direction, or legislate to restrict the kinds of products that are available to us, or to change the way in which food is imported or produced in this country? And I think that's a difficult question. Right? It's a really difficult kind of trade off.


Yeah. I mean, so as it is now, I mean, so how would you describe are, at least in the US that? Well, so you're talking about the trade off between individual decision making and sort of governmental guidance or legislation? Right. And you're talking about it in terms of food production, and consumption and distribution? Right, you know, all these kinds of things, right, sort of. I mean, I think a lot of us sometimes, you know, we note certain areas where, where the government is involved in, you know, I mean, we notice when taxes come out of our paycheck, and we noticed certain rules that tell us we can't do this, or, you know, whatever, right? I mean, are there areas where you think they're sort of big failures of, of the government to be involved or areas, or conversely, areas where the government is, they're involved in ways which most of us don't notice, like in the shaping of the distributions, either, I'm leaving that open to your first sort of take your pick of like, what you want to say there.


So I think one, one thing to say is, how involved the government is, in particular areas of the economy is, in a lot of ways, not very principled at this point in time. So, you know, there's a lot of intervention in some areas of the food marketplace, and a lot less in others. And there have collectively been a lot of choices made about that was a choice that we made, kind of collectively or a choice that was made for us. And we could choose otherwise. As a political philosopher, the kind of thing that you ask yourself is when is it legitimate for the state to intervene? And there's a lot of different answers to that question. Right. So I don't want to I don't want to brush aside the differences that philosophers have over this, this question, not gonna solve it right here. So the question of state paternalism in 40 minutes. But one thing that most people agree upon is that the state ought to be able to help us coordinate our behavior, where the kind of individual incentives that we face, that what would be rational as an individual consumer to do, or collectively undermine our well being or collectively undermine a kind of a good. The classic example of this is a thing called the tragedy of the commons, which I won't kind of rehearse here. But the idea is a view. Each of us had this, it's this incentive to purchase a product or use a particular resource. If all of us use that resource, then that resource is likely to collapse or degrade or become non existent overfishing is overfishing is


the air quality, right? That's another issue. Yeah, quality,


one person polluting a little more doesn't make a difference. Right, right.


But collectively, we all make this difference. And so I think when it comes to food, that kind of big tragedy of the commons issue, or the big collective action problem that we face, is to do with antibiotic resistance. So there is a kind of big individual incentive for individual meat producers, if you're producing particularly swine, or chickens. To a lesser extent, beef cattle, but mostly chicken and swine, there's a big incentive to use kind of persistently use antibiotics in the feed that you give your animals in order to protect them from disease. So it's partially a animal welfare issue. But also because these antibiotics or growth promoters, though, they make bigger chickens and bigger swine and make more money on the market, and each individual farmer or individual producer who does this doesn't make a big impact. But collectively, the use of all these antibiotics is driving the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Right. So there's a lot of worry, for instance, about the use of tetracycline agriculturally, which is related to a class it is not used for humans, but it's related to a class of human antibiotics. And that's one area where there's been a lot of concern. That seems like an area where the state could do a lot more than tents right now. In fact, the CDC for many years has warned about the agricultural use of antibiotics as a key driver of antibiotic resistance.


So I was wondering if maybe we can shift to something a little different, though there's a lot to keep on talking about this topic, right. But uh, but I want to, I want to get a sample of the different kinds of ethical, social political issues or around food that you've that you've been working on. So you were talking about risk to different parts. One is the sort of the way we individually make decisions, right, sort of, we might undertake some risk, and, and to both ourselves and to others, and sort of, you know, collectively, it's not good, but you're also talking about misperceptions of risk individually. Right. And we talked about planes. But one of the things I know you've worked on as individual misperceptions of risk about GMOs, right, and as related to food, so you want to say something about that? About, about what some of that work is about?


Yeah, so, I got interested in the GMO issue about two or three years ago, during a public policy debate that was occurring at the time over whether or not we ought to mandatorily label GMOs should we require manufacturers of products that contain GMO ingredients to label them as, as such, I was a little bit concerned about the kind of way that the rhetoric around GMO labeling had evolved. For many, many years, people have had, this concern about the risks the health risks of GMOs. Some people have concerns about the environmental risk of genetically modified organisms. In many ways, these perceptions that people have are at odds with the kind of body of scientific evidence so far, about particularly the health risks that go with the health, the health risks of GMOs.


In other words, the evidence suggests there's no no little or no difference, right, in terms of actual health risk of genetically modified foods, right? Yeah. Yeah.


So the evidence could shift over 20 or 30 years. Right. But so far, the evidence suggests that there's very little additional health risk from GMO foods, right. But there are a lot of people. In fact, the latest, the last study that I looked at said about 40% of people still considered GMOs, unsafe to eat. Right. So products containing GMO ingredients to be unsafe to eat. So there's real gap between what the kinds of scientific evidence about the health risks of GMO containing products, what the scientific evidence says about those health risks, which is there's evidence so far says that there's very little.


It's important to know that the evidence is based on tests you do for other substances that we accept as being safe corrected there, the experiments are done in a very similar way.


Yeah, I mean, the the examination of the different compounds that are generated by GMO producing products run in just the same way as the the examinations of any other compounds, like a new pesticide, or a new or new crossbred plant or a new traditionally generated strain of corn or millet or whatever.


So is this just people being sort of there's a sense in which it's sort of they're, they're just being risk averse. They're just saying, Hey, there's this risk, and I want to avoid it, or I mean, you think that the ways you were talking nurses suggest that, you know, if you're going to be risk averse, with respect to this, these are just a safe as a whole bunch of other things that we do is kind of like the planes and the cars, right? It's kind of right. Yeah.


I mean, I think there's probably three different classes of people who have concerns about GMOs. The first class are people who have kind of sincere, religious or ethical objections to the modify the modification of organisms through the kind of bio engineering process. They believe that that kind of direct genetic alteration, or the kind of radical introduction of trans genes from radically different species, that's kind of morally or religiously illegitimate procedure. So that's one class though those folks, it's not a question of risk, not just that GMOs are illegitimate, right. There's a second class. And I think this is probably the largest class who don't haven't really spent a lot of time thinking about this, or about or working into the health risks of GMOs or if they have They've done a kind of simple Google search, or they've read some popular media articles about GMOs. And that class, if they are concerned about GMOs are concerned, I think about health risks. I think they're concerned about those health risks erroneously, I think that it's just a matter of them not having had the time, or the energy to really dig into,


or the appropriate information to help them or whatever else it takes. Right. Okay.


So there's a kind of misunderstanding that that group, and then there are, there will be some people who are well informed about GMO agriculture who are well informed about genetic modification and its health risks, but are simply kind of very averse to the risk, right? They think that it's not time yet. GMO contain products have only been on the market for about 20 years. Right.


So would you put in his class that people were worried about the environmental risks too? Or is this a separate thing?


Well, the maybe this photograph, but yes, I mean, I think a lot of people who are motivated by this kind who understand GMOs relatively well, who've done a fair bit of research, and understand that the scientific evidence so far doesn't point to any additional risk over conventional agriculture, that if they're still concerned about GMOs, they're worried about the kind of long term or longer children or effects of 20-30 years of eating genetically modified food, or they're worried about the long term on good to normal effects of 20 or 30 years of genetically modified moto culture, and its environmental effects. And their concern is that it's the evidence that we have so far while it says that there's no additional risk isn't the end of the story they want, they want more time to evaluate whether or not these products would have public health effects, and I think most of them suspect they would. And they're kind of risk, they're averse to this unknown.


So how does this apply to the labeling issue?


Maybe we should start with what the labeling issue? Yes.


So go from there. Yeah, sure. So. So when we talk about GMO labeling, the labeling of consumer products in general, there's a kind of couple of distinctions to get ahead of. The first is that, you know, labels that we find on our soup cans, or on our cereal packets, or whatever the Their function is to disclose information, right. And most of that those disclosures of information on the soup can or the cereal packet are voluntary, right, the company who wants to sell you this product, volunteers a certain set of information. Right? Now, the government regulates those labels in all sorts of different ways, right? In particular, it prevents people from creating misleading labels, labels that obscures the truth about what this particular product is, or give a false impression of what the product contains. So the kind of best example of this is, if you ever go to the to the the fruit juice aisle, in your supermarket, you will notice that many of the orange juice containers they either say from concentrate or not from concentrate. And the reason that they say, from concentrate or not from concentrate is because the government required this distinction to be labeled clearly. Right. So a lot of the regulations that the government makes on labeling regulations designed to kind of prevent direct statements of fact from being false, or like or misleading. But there is another class, which is sometimes the government requires the disclosure of information, it prevents the company from omitting certain kinds of information. So the two best examples of that are the nutritional label that you find on the back of most products, and ingredient and allergen information. And the government does this because it thinks that for the nutritional labels, it thinks that there's a kind of public health benefit to doing so. Right, that giving people more information will help kind of reduce, public health problems like heart disease and obesity and metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Right. And the GMO labeling issue is one of these kinds of issues. It's a question of whether or not we should require manufacturers of genetically modified products to disclose that fact, just like we require manufacturers to disclose the fat content of their product. So this, this kind of question all came to a head in about 2014 2015, after a long, long, long period of back and forth between advocates of GMO labeling and industry who resisted the mandatory labeling, the kind of arguments that advocates for GMO labeling made shifted over a kind of decade long process. So, initially, in the early 2000s, the arguments were that labeling GMOs were inherently risky. They are inherently they pose health and environmental risks. And so we ought to label them as a kind of warning to consumers, right. Just like you might think the saturated fat label is a warning as to public health. The argument that advocates of mandatory labeling made there was that public health requires that we label these things that because the scientific evidence over the last 10 years doesn't support this idea that this would increase public health. The argument shifted around 2013 2014 to the claim that it doesn't matter whether or not GMOs pose a health risk, or pose an environmental risk, we need to mandatorily label these products, because doing so would improve consumer autonomy.


So I bet you it's gonna take us a long time to really unpack that. So how about you say quickly, sort of what the line there is? So the autonomy is like, hey, look, I just want to know, right? You know, that's the autonomy, like you're gonna give me more information, I'm better off right. For my own interests, right, make my own choices. 


I'm sure but you argue that that's not the case, when mandatory GMO labeling is instituted, right, and we should note that in 2016, the government did pass the National bioengineered food disclosure standard. And those final regulations are due to come out. Well, they were due to come out in July, I believe, but are a little late, due to come up with the end of the year. And the USDA Agricultural Marketing Act has defined a bioengineered food, which is what we think of as a genetically modified food, it was added in this discussion as food that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant DNA techniques, and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or are found in nature. So just for people are wondering what exactly the standard is, but you're against, you know, the labeling aspect of it. So how did that all flesh out?


Well, so the the basic argument from advocates who had this kind of consumer autonomy argument was that look, people just want to know, and it's true, in fact, that if you, Paul, if you take a poll, most people, in fact, would support mandatory labeling of GMO products, it seems like a lot of people want to know whether or not something contains GMO ingredients. And so the argument was, it doesn't matter whether or not it's true. These things pose a health risk or an environmental risk. Simply giving people the information allows them to make an informed choice about whether or not this product is for them. 


So in some sense, that sounds like a no brainer, right? So like, why is that complicated, then? 


I mean, it's complicated, because the concept of autonomy is complicated. In really broad strokes, you might think of autonomy in one of two ways. The first way is a kind of a kind of libertarian view of autonomy. The idea is that you are autonomous, when you're free to kind of make the choices that you want to make, right? You're free, so long as no, you're, you're autonomous, so long as no one is kind of forcing you to do something that you would not want to do right. Now. That's one, one account of autonomy, right? The idea is that you really kind of that you should just be left alone, right? Autonomy is about being left alone and not being like manipulated or influenced by other people, right. Another view of autonomy or kind of what's sometimes called a positive or a perfectionist view of autonomy, is that know what it means to be autonomous is for you to have the requisite knowledge And to have appropriately reflected upon your desires, and your wants, such that what you choose to do is kind of authentically yours, right? Like you're really making a choice that is, that is directed at the things that you really want deep down, but also, that the choices that you make are like a fully informed with a relatively complete understanding of the facts, right. And the degree to which you're more fully informed, and more and your desires are more authentic, the more autonomous you are, right.


So I've ate a jelly doughnut thinking that's going to be healthy for me. Right? That's not, right. Something like that is not so I'm not fully autonomous, then is the idea. So data misunderstanding, so definitely on jelly.


I mean, it's good for your well being makes me happy, right? Yeah.


So the perfectionist is going to say, look, if you walk into the donut shop, and you are under the illusion, that donuts are a health superfood, right, that they're going to cleanse you of all the toxins that are in your body that you're going to like that living solely on doughnuts would be like a, you know, a complete diet, right? giving you all the like nutrients that you require. That your purchase of a donut is not autonomous, right? Like you, you might have this authentic goal, which is I want to be healthier, right? But your understanding of what means are going to get you to that goal, what kind of actions are going to bring you closer to that goal is kind of radically confused.


So in some sense, I'm being manipulated by my misunderstanding, or something like that. Right. So I need to say before we talk more about donuts, I know, I know that people own like one of the major donut shops in Manhattan. So right, so donuts are wonderful. eating right, you know, if you do it under, yeah. So you know, right? So let's talk about the autonomy part of the like, yeah,


so, so the perfectionist, this, this second view about autonomy is going to is us, in addition to saying that the person who walks in thinking donuts or amazing super healthy food is acting non autonomously, they're going to say that if you walk into the donut shop, and you buy a doughnut, because you want the delicious taste of fried dough, then you are acting autonomously. I mean, so long as you are going into things with your eyes open. There's no kind of complaint that you're acting on autonomously? It doesn't, it doesn't require that you choose a certain set of things, right? Like you don't have to do the right thing, right? It's just that you know, enough to make the decision for yourself. That's right. It's just that you are acting with a kind of full understanding of the consequences of what you want to do.


But we are never fully autonomous when we're making all of our food decisions, right? I mean, we can't possibly reflect on every food that we've ever eaten, especially when I go to grocery store or something like that. 


Yeah, that's right. I mean, so the perfectionist is a kind of ideal standard, right? They're saying that there's this, there's this ideal, which is full and total autonomy that none of us met. Right. But they're getting closer to that is what improving or respecting or promoting consumer autonomy requires.


Okay, so then for GMOs, let's see how quickly we can do this. Because I know it'll get complicated, but sort of then for GMOs, the requirement, the ideas that require GMO labeling supposed to be good for my autonomy helped me be more autonomous in my decision making on a perfectionist view than that, that doesn't hold. 


Why it doesn't hold because a large proportion of the population has fundamentally mistaken views about what the scientific evidence about GMOs says. So within the last, I mean, we just we were just talking about this, the last Pew poll said about 40% of people considered GMOs, unsafe to eat. It's just not congruent with the evidence that we have so far about the health risks of GMOs. 


To say that, that's true in many of these people. And so many of these people are eating GMOs and maybe don't necessarily know it, right, because 90-90% Over 90% of soy and corn in the United States is genetically modified, and about 70 to 80% of the food in a store, or at least contain something from it. Yeah, yeah.


So the idea. The idea, then is that if you're required labeling of GMOs, in some sense, that's sending a signal to people that Like is reinforcing this misconception kind of is that the major concern?


The basic, concern is that if you label GMOs with this label at the bottom that says This product contains genetically modified ingredients, that it essentially acts as a warning. And that the warning, or the warning reinforces a set of false beliefs that people have about what the evidence about GMOs suggests. And that to reinforce those false beliefs is, in fact, to manipulate someone, right? It's, in fact, to decrease their autonomy. The perfectionist would say, Look, if we're serious about increasing people's autonomy, we shouldn't just be labeling, we should be engaging in a widespread campaign of education and dialogue about what is the scientific evidence, say about the risks and benefits of GMOs? What are some of the genuine trade offs that we might point to? Right? And, you know, that kind of education process would be a lot harder. It will be a lot more time intensive than simply labeling, but it would be a way of protecting and promoting people's autonomy that didn't allow their kind of misconceptions to dominate their reasoning. 


I think this is a really good example of how something that seems kind of straightforward, like how could more information be bad, right, sort of I mean, all we're asking for is just more information that actually there's many layers of here of of consideration at the sort of ethical level in terms of the relationship between the government and, and your individual autonomy, whichever version of those that it is, and sort of in general, like the social political scene, right, and this is all complicated stuff.


So I mean, just to kind of wrap up this a little bit, there are different ways in which this information can be disclosed, right, that will be allowed through this act. There's either just the label stuck on the can or package or whatever. But there's also like the QR codes, or some, I think you can offer a phone number to call to ask and that sort of thing. So I mean, is there one you favor over another? Do you think there shouldn't be any period?


So I think my view is that a kind of ingenious solution to this autonomy problem is to allow or to require manufacturers to provide access to the information should someone wish to access that information? Right. The kind of way that the bioengineered food standard Act allows for this is that manufacturers could produce a QR code, which is a kind of fancy graphic, that that embeds a link that you can access using your phone, or a simple phone hotline, where consumers would be able to ask the manufacturer whether or not the food contains or potentially contains GMO ingredients. And then what you're doing is you're allowing people for whom GMO, agriculture JNI organisms are a kind of genuine, well considered deeply held risk or conviction, right? These people who can have deep convictions about the wrongfulness of GMO agriculture are the are sincerely risk averse, that those people have access to the information without activating the kind of false beliefs of the very large number of people who have in large part not really had the time or the inclination to reflect upon GMO and kind of making a gut judgment about whether or not this this these ingredients are safe. That said odds with what the evidence would suggest. And so I think like the kind of past what's called a passive labeling scheme, where people are able to access that kind of information is an appropriate way forward.


Do you think that that's how the government's going to lay out the standards? Do you have any feeling about what the final verdict is gonna be?


I mean, I don't think any of us should be in the business of predicting what regulations are going to come out. The USDA, under the current act, I think passive labeling is one of the options that would meet the standard, precisely what the regulations say is.


I guess we'll find out so hopefully, by the end of the year, mode will be respectful of your time, we really appreciate you taking, you know, over an hour to talk to us. Just as a last note, is there anything if somebody was student or person was really interested in this sort of stuff? Are there any resources or ways that they can get more involved any books or anywhere, anything that you might recommend? 


Well, they're more than welcome to read my article. Which you can find via my website, if you simply Google my name, you should be able to find my article provide links. Sure. Yeah. And it's for people who want to know what's called against the autonomy argument for men mandatory GMO labeling. It's in public affairs quarterly in 2018. 


So Well, thank you, Jon. We really appreciate it and like Scott was for being here. Thank you so much.