March 20, 2013 4:11PM

Genetically Modified Choice

The New York Times reports today that Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Aldi supermarket chains have decided not to sell a new form of genetically modified fish. The FDA is set to approve the sale of a type of salmon genetically engineered to mature more quickly than its natural ancestors. This will be the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption. While the FDA has determined that the genetic alteration of the fish has no effect on its meat, “Frankenfish”—as some have called it—still gives many consumers the heebie‐​jeebies. 

I would just like to point out that consumer demand for natural fish has prompted a market response that provides convenient access for GM‐​wary eaters while (most importantly) preserving choice for less‐​cautious consumers. Mandatory labels like those proposed last year in California were not needed to ensure consumers received desired information; retailers have filled that function instead. 

Anti‐​GM campaigners lobby for restrictions on GM foods like out‐​right bans or onerous labeling requirements with the aim of ensuring that everyone has access to non‐​GM options. Whole Foods has offered non‐​GM products for a long time, but this has generally not mollified anti‐​GM campaigners, because Whole Foods is pricier than most grocery stores. Aldi, however, is very much a discount grocery store that targets and appeals to a different demographic than Whole Foods. I won’t hold my breath, but I’m hoping that anti‐​GM activists are now more open to the idea that consumers are empowered by choice, not mandates.

Without government intervention retailers will provide consumers with what consumers want. When government intervenes, retailers are forced to provide consumers with what ideological activists and lobby‐​savvy industries want them to have. Those industry groups are especially active right now as regulators seek to amend mandatory country of origin labels for beef and dolphin‐​safe labels for tuna that have been rightly decried by our trade partners as protectionist discrimination. Trusting consumers to look after themselves could save us a lot of trouble.