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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Posts from — May 2013

Caveat Emptor

Caveat Emptor

When it comes to food and nutrition, we humans demonstrate a wide range of degrees of awareness, from the junk-food junkie to the vegan. Many of us are ignorant about the ingredients in the food we buy and eat, and the FDA is happy to allow us to remain blissful in this ignorance. The word natural, for example, appears on the label of many grocery store items, sending the message that these products are made with ingredients that are better for us, presumably, than “unnatural” or artificial ingredients, but what does it really mean? Most of these so-called natural foods contain “GMOs,” the acronym for “genetically modified organisms,” engineered using DNA from plants, bacteria, viruses, and other sources and introduced into the food chain by companies such as Monsanto, famous for its manufacture of chemicals and pesticides including Agent Orange, a carcinogen and teratogen to which some five million people, mostly civilians, were exposed during the defoliation campaign of the Vietnam war. The devastating effects of Agent Orange are still being suffered by many today, more than forty years later. One certainly could make the case that such genetic manipulations, injected into seeds, crops, feed, and other foundational blocks of the food supply, are anything but natural. Advocates of the use of GMOs argue that there is no scientific proof that they are harmful to humans; opponents maintain that this isn’t good enough, as GMOs have not been shown to be safe, either, and in fact, no one can guarantee that their widespread use will not have an adverse effect on human health and the environment, including possible alterations of the human genome. Using GMOs without a consistent, clinical demonstration of their safety follows the logical fallacy called “argumentum ad ignorantiam,” the “appeal to ignorance,” which reasons, for example, that, “there must be ghosts, because nobody’s proven there aren’t any.” Sound reasoning tells us that we cannot establish the truth of a conclusion based on the fact that the opposite truth-claim has not been disproved. The fact that nobody’s proven that there are no ghosts does not imply the existence of ghosts; it just means that the question remains open. In the same way, acting as though GMOs are safe because no one has proven they aren’t is an argument that only ignorance will find convincing. As consumers, we have the right to choose whether or not we want to buy and eat food that has been genetically manipulated, and decide for ourselves the extent of the risk. Furthermore, we may ask, why does the FDA not require food producers to label their products to let us know if they contain GMOs? Many of the GMO producers, like Monsanto, are spending millions to defeat Proposition 37 in California, which would require such labeling. Why would they do that? If the buyer is to beware, doesn’t he or she have the right to be informed? In light of the clinical studies that have been done (a mounting number show that GMOs can be toxic, allergenic, or less nutritious than their non-GMO counterparts),, and given that the longterm effects of GMO consumption remain unknown, the consumer who agrees to consume foods containing GMOs is essentially agreeing to be a guinea pig. Companies such as Monsanto can get away with this because we are willing to remain ignorant, to look the other way, to assume that the ingredients in the bowl of cereal that we ate this morning are essentially the same as the ingredients in the one we ate fifty years ago, because the box it came in bears the same name and the same company branding. But it isn’t. Becoming a conscious consumer and reading the labels isn’t enough anymore. Much of the crucial information we need to make informed nutritional choices isn’t on the labels, because the government doesn’t require companies to put it there, and the companies like it that way. Many of the corporations that we have trusted with our nutrition and the effects of that nutrition on our health, however, have shown themselves to be unscrupulous in the pursuit of profit, blithely disregarding human well-being, health, and the effects on the environment not exceptionally but as a rule, and while there may be a few that still operate with a conscience, it is simply foolish to look the other way when it comes to the ones that have earned our mistrust through the introduction of ingredients that have not been proven to be safe, deceptive labeling practices, and spending millions to keep consumers in the dark.

There is a striking parallel here to relationships—collegial, platonic, and romantic. When we meet someone we find attractive in any of these ways, we take some time to get acquainted, don’t we? For the most part, we don’t jump into a business partnership or into bed with someone we don’t know, because in order for these associations to be workable and good for all concerned, there has to be a foundation of trust, and trust takes time to establish. Not all associations are nourishing and sustainable, and some are downright toxic. We may not be able to read the signs immediately, but until the other person has shown himself or herself to be trustworthy, there is much to be said for erring on the side of caution. After all, the “labeling” may be deceptive; people are not always what they appear at first to be. Going slowly allows us to stay on course with self-care and alert to our instincts, so that if something is not right, it has time to come to light before we’ve gone too far down the wrong path, because we aren’t going faster than the truth.

There seems to be an epidemic of carelessness in the modern world, which has an aversion to going slowly—a carelessness I’ve described as “whatever consciousness.” It is characterized by looking the other way, by the failure to recognize the irrevocable connection between responsibility and well-being, by a detachment from the world and others that often seems to border on solipsism. The young man driving down the road with his car radio blasting the obscene lyrics of the latest rap song, the neighbor who allows his dog to continue barking in the middle of the night, the litterbug—these are personal manifestations of a serious disconnection from those things that are most deeply and profoundly human, the things that allow us to care about each other and ourselves, and inspire us to leave the world a bit better than we found it, or at least not worse. Nutrition, health, the quality of our connections with others—all of these depend on our willingness to care, to extend ourselves for the sake of something greater than ourselves, something that matters more than convenience or the gratification of the moment. This is what I love about philosophy: It cares. It wants to know the truth, and it refuses to look the other way. If I find myself even once on the short end of “caveat emptor” in dealing with any company, I do not give that company a second chance. In keeping with the requirements of self-respect, some things are not negotiable. We can do better than thoughtlessly agreeing to be guinea pigs for corporations that don’t care about anything but the bottom line. We can choose to hold to high standards of self-care and only buy or buy into things that have proven their trustworthiness. We can do better than “whatever.” It is simply a matter of refusing to settle for less.

May 21, 2013   Comments Off on Caveat Emptor