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Why Neil Young is wrong about genetically modified food labelling

Neil Young is urging you not to buy coffee at Starbucks anymore.

He’s upset that the Grocery Manufacturers Association, of which Starbucks is a member, is suing Vermont over the state’s new law that will require labelling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients by summer of 2016.

In an open letter, Young claims that “we have a right to know what we put in our mouths.” As I’ve argued before, that simply isn’t true, at least not as a generalization. You certainly have a right to control what you put in your mouth, but that doesn’t — and cannot possibly — include a right to know every detail of every thing you put in your mouth. If you don’t trust something, don’t eat or drink it. Don’t buy it. But you don’t have the right to insist on knowing everything about it. You might want to know whether your food was harvested by the light of a full moon, but you don’t have a right to that information. A business that refuses to give you that information isn’t violating your rights.

It doesn’t help, of course, that one of the other key players in the lawsuit is Monsanto, a company that for many people represents evil incarnate. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m no fan of Monsanto. But its involvement shouldn’t blind us to the fact that GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) are, as a category, no less safe than any other kind of food. Nor should it blind us to the fact that the GMO category is both over-inclusive and under-inclusive if what you’re worried about is potentially-harmful forms of genetic modification. Scientists understand this. Neil Young does not.

Young is right about a couple of things, though. He rightly suggests, for example, that public pressure might get Starbucks to change its ways. This is quite plausible. Lots of companies are already caving in to irrational public fears regarding GMOs. Starbucks could be next, so Young’s strategy, regrettably, just might work.

He’s also right that there is more at stake, here, than what can be sold in one relatively small US state. It’s entirely possible that if the Vermont law is allowed to stand, the precedent it sets will help make it easier for other states to jump on the bandwagon.

But what Young is right about is far outweighed by what he’s wrong about. He claims that the lawsuit is trying to “stop accurate food labeling.” That’s a gross misrepresentation. There’s nothing importantly “accurate” about a label that says “this product contains GMOs,” even when it’s technically true. For that to count as accurate labelling, it would have to be a meaningful label (one that distinguishes one kind of ingredient from an importantly different kind) and it would have to have some chance of being understood by customers. Such a label is much more likely to be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and mistakenly taken as a reliable guide to better purchasing decisions.

Consider: what if some jurisdiction foolishly passed a law saying that all foods containing carbon had to be labelled as such? What if someone opposed that law? Would they be fighting “accurate food labelling?” All food contains carbon. Pointing it out helps nobody. And claiming that they have a “right” to be told it is just plain silly.


    
 


Canada doesn’t need to be an economic superpower to lead the world

Canada’s place in the world has been in the news lately, for a variety of reasons.

For starters, Canadian jets have been hitting Islamic State military positions in Iraq. For American readers, who are more used to seeing their military show its muscle, I should clarify: this is newsworthy in Canada. Canadians have historically thought of themselves as peacekeepers — we have a long history of participation in UN peacekeeping missions — but have less often, in recent decades at least, been involved in outright warfare.

And on the economic front, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is just back from visiting China, a trip aimed at solidifying and expanding economic relations between the two countries. Not surprisingly, given the focus of the visit, a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office makes no mention of human rights. But as others have noted repeatedly, China has a pretty bad record in that regard. A liberal democracy like Canada must be concerned (and has occasionally expressed concern) about China’s record on human rights. So the trip to China meant the PM had to smile for the cameras while presumably biting his tongue. It’s not hard to understand that decision: the trip reportedly resulted in $2.8 billion worth of new deals — a big amount for a relatively small economy like Canada’s. The deal is less important for China’s massive economy, naturally. But it is no doubt important for China’s leadership to be seen shaking hands with leaders of respected liberal democracies. As political scientist Charles Burton put it, “the Chinese leadership got the affirmation of political legitimacy that they wanted from Canada.” Is Canada hoping to demonstrate leadership here, helping its new best pal see the way forward on human rights? Or is Canada instead being led by the nose?

But Canada faces other challenges too on the global scene. Canada’s dairy farmers, long protected by a system of quotas and price controls, are currently haunted by the spectre of international competition. In an era of free (or freer) trade, such protections are increasingly coming under fire. Most recently, New Zealand (charmingly referred to by some as the ‘Saudi Arabia of milk’) is pushing to gain access for its milk producers to the Canadian market. Is Canada going to lead in free trade, or in protectionism?

All of this is to say that the role of Canada on the world stage — the military stage, the political stage, and the economic stage — is evolving rapidly. High on the list of related questions is whether there is a leadership role for Canada, and if so, just what that role is. Canadians know that they aren’t going to play a leadership role militarily. We aren’t a superpower (we rank 57th, globally, in terms of active military personnel, and our defence budget is the 15th biggest in the world). And in terms of overall population, our 35 million puts us at 38th in the world, and our GDP is the 11th highest in the world — respectable for our size, but hardly an economic superpower.

But the truth of it is — and this is a point I work hard to impress upon my students — that leadership isn’t a function reserved for the top of the food-chain. In a corporation, leadership isn’t exclusively a function for CEOs and other C-suite executives. Leadership happens throughout an organization. And I don’t just mean that there are managers at all levels. That’s true, but not the point: not all managers are leaders in any meaningful sense. Leadership is a role, not a job title, and you (yes you!) can be a leader if you have the skills and use them to step up to the plate. So Canada (and other non-superpower countries) can still aim to play a leadership role on the international stage, if they are willing and interested to.

That’s why the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre (of which I am Director) is proud to be supporting The Economist‘s first-ever Canada Summit. (You can get a $400 discount on registration by clicking on that link!) The overarching theme is the question, “how can Canada play a larger, global role?” The Canada Summit is characteristically ambitious (I’ve participated in one of The Economist’s events previously), but the organizers have gathered together an impressive lineup of speaker to tackle the Summit’s agenda. Of course, no one event can really answer such ambitious questions. But the conversation is important. Personally or nationally, the question of whether this is your time to lead is always an open one. But the right time to start thinking about it is always now.


    
 


Canadians trust CEOs more than politicians—but not much more

Canadians mistrust politicians at about twice the rate at which they mistrust CEOs. Is that good news or bad news for Canada’s business leaders?

The numbers come from a new national survey*, conducted by the Gandalf Group on behalf of the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre (of which I’m Director) .

The survey, which we believe to be the first of its kind, asked Canadian voters their views on a range of issues related to the ethics of political leadership. The full results of the study will be released on Wednesday, November 5, at a half-day event I’m hosting at Ryerson University, called The Ethics of Political Leadership.

Our goal in doing the survey was to go beyond the facile truism that voters don’t trust politicians. We wanted to know more. Which ethical issues do Canadians believe to be the most serious? Do Canadians have greater faith in their federal, provincial, or municipal leaders? How common do Canadians think various ethical infractions are? How much do Canadians (mis)trust politicians, compared to other members of professions, such as CEOs, judges, and journalists? It turns out that politicians overall don’t fare well: 50% of respondents said that they “do not trust” politicians, whereas only 25% said the same of CEOs. Journalists, and especially judges, fare much better.

How happy should Canada’s business leaders be about the fact that they fare so much better than our widely-mistrusted politicians? The truth is that CEOs should be worried. Only 22% of Canadians say they trust CEOs, compared to the 36% who trust public servants and the 65% who trust judges. The numbers put CEOs just below the middle of the pack, among the 9 professions we asked about. That’s higher than some of us might have expected, surely, but it’s also much lower than we might have hoped for. The world of business, after all, runs on trust. Contracts and warrantees only go so far: without trust, markets suffer.

For that matter, CEOs should be worried too about the low numbers for politicians. Not only is a lack of trust in politicians bad for democracy: it’s bad for business. How effective can politicians be in effecting smart regulations, smart tax policies, and smart public policy frameworks for economic development if they don’t have the trust of the electorate?

Canadian democracy is in the midst of a crisis of trust. And while CEOs may be more widely trusted than politicians are, but they have little reason to celebrate overall.

*The survey was conducted between Oct 17 and 22, 2014, using an online panel. A nationally representative sample of n=1039 was surveyed. More information about the survey is available on the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre site.


    
 


Fame produces ethical blind spots we must be aware of

Canadians were caught off-guard recently when Jian Ghomeshi, the popular host of Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s radio show “Q” was fired by the public broadcaster. This was not the traditional “he’s moving on to other projects” kind of departure, but a clear and abrupt severing of ties. The statement issued noted that “The CBC is saddened to announce its relationship with Jian Ghomeshi has come to an end.” Boom.

Just a day later, Ghomeshi fired back via Facebook, making clear that his departure was not amicable. Ghomeshi also revealed his version of what was at the heart of the matter: his sex life, and in particular his preference for rough sex. He said he was into BDSM, and asserted that those who shared his bedroom had participated in some rough play entirely consensually. He implied that his former employer, the CBC, was simply stuck up and couldn’t handle his edgy lifestyle. That same day, Ghomeshi’s lawyers filed a $55 million lawsuit against his former employer, for defamation, breach of confidence, and more. In the days since, a number of women have come forward to claim that they were subject to various kinds of abuse and assault by Ghomeshi—all of it decidedly non-consensual.

The case is ethically interesting—or is at least fodder for an interesting discussion—in a couple of different ways. Ghomeshi is of course just one case, and his firing was far from your run-of-the-mill dismissal. But the case helps us see a couple of different dimensions along which cases might vary.

One dimension has to do with, well, what in fact went on between Ghomeshi and the women involved. If—hypothetically, because the evidence really is mounting against him—Ghomeshi were telling the truth, then what happened was some “sexual practices that are mutually agreed upon, consensual, and exciting for both partners.” And if that were the case—again, hypothetically—then the question would arise whether it is OK to sack an employee for participating in some sexual practices of which you (or your customers) might disapprove. The CBC is, by all accounts, a somewhat conservative organization (though Ghomeshi was part of the CBC’s attempt, over the last decade, to become more hip). But even a conservative organization needs to be careful about holding an employee’s off-the-job activities against him.

At the other end of the spectrum, if the worst case scenario is  true, then the CBC was faced with the prospect of an employee being potentially charged with multiple accounts of both common and sexual assault. Here we see shades of the Ray Rice case, and need to ask whether criminal acts are sufficient reason, ethically, to terminate an employee whose on-the-job performance has been otherwise satisfactory. Legally, of course, guys like Ghomeshi and Rice often have a “morals clause” written into their contracts—clauses that permit their employers to terminate them if they cause substantial embarrassment to the organization. But ethically, it’s not so clear: if someone does something illegal, the legal system has a million bits of due process that ensure that the investigation and trial are fair, and that the punishment fits the crime. Most employers are likely to be less thorough, and firing is a serious outcome. Ethically, firing isn’t always going to be OK.

(This is not the first time the CBC has fired an employee for behaviour that threatened to cast a bad light upon the organization. In 2003, a CBC reporter was fired for rubbing raw chicken and dirt onto some chocolates and mailing them to a critic. After a protracted legal battle, the reporter was eventually reinstated.)

This brings us to the second dimension of this case, which has to do with fame and responsibility. Ghomeshi is a famous broadcaster, a man once plausibly on-course for one day being declared a bona fide Canadian icon. His face is—or, rather, was—plastered all over the walls at the CBC’s headquarters. And as I suggested recently with regard to the Ray Rice scandal, cases involving famous men doing awful things don’t necessarily help us understand the ethical subtlety of the more general problem of whether to fire employees who do bad things off the job. Famous people evoke all sorts of odd and perhaps extreme moral judgments in us. “He’s famous and should have known better.” “He’s powerful and abused that power.” “He’s rich, so I hate him and he deserves what he gets.” And so on. And all of those intuitions may, of course, be entirely on-target with regard to Ghomeshi. But to the extent to which they are intuitions, rather than conclusions reached based on careful reasoning, we ought to be wary of them.


    
 


How Apple and Facebook have taken gender discrimination to a new level

Over the last week or so we have seen a vibrant debate unfolding after the announcement of Apple and Facebook’s latest benefit: Female employees can store and freeze their eggs on the company’s dime so that they can postpone pregnancy beyond the phase where they might want to just focus on their careers.

I put the case up for debate in my undergraduate classes on business ethics this week. It was a fascinating experience. To start, we assessed the upshot. There is a surge of female professionals who attempt at pregnancy in their forties and thus a surge in in-vitro fertilization and a host of other avenues to late motherhood luckily provided by progress in obstetrics these days. But there is also a fair number of women who just have to suck it up that by the time they can put their head around having babies, that ship has sailed.

Here, such an offer seems to be a big benefit. You can progress in an environment where your commitment to the job is 24/7 – like your male colleagues – and still enjoy motherhood at a later stage. And your babies will be built out of genetic material that is as good as it would have been had you dared at the impossible of merging both, career and motherhood. This policy indeed provides women with more options, more choice to freely decide what to do with their lives, their careers and their aspirations at the personal level.

But upon further scrutiny, my students unearthed three major problems. The first is fairly obvious: what is offered as an ‘option’ by the company may quickly become the ‘default’. What will happen now at Google if a 32 year old women tells her boss she wants to go on maternity leave? Given the options, she makes a statement clear and loud that she prefers her personal priorities over the company’s. In organizations, rules prescribe roles. This new option potentially excludes motherhood from what a ‘high potential’, future executive at Google should prioritize in her most fertile years.

A second focus of discussion turned out to unveil the unsaid. What about the male role in child bearing and rearing? The tacit assumption of such a policy seems to be that not a single of Apple or Facebook’s male employees will ever need similar help or support in his career because of having children. In some ways then the policy just reflects rather problematic gender stereotypes: mothers get distracted from their careers by having children; fathers just carry on as if nothing has happened. Yes, there are different biological constraints on women; but having and rearing a child also totally involves the father – unless he is a complete moron (or Google and Facebook’s model employee?). Fair enough, Facebook also extends an option to male employees to freeze their sperms: after all, a significant threat to post-40 pregnancy is not the female egg, but increasingly the deterioration of male sperm at that age. But the message is the same: postpone that baby business!

Which leads to a third objection which cuts to a deeper level. The age between 25 and 35 for a woman is the phase where biologically motherhood is the most likely. It is also the phase where most women are at the prime of their adulthood: mature enough to make tough life choices on partners and lifestyles, but also vibrant and physically energetic enough to dedicate full energy to their pursuits. By offering this option, aren’t Apple and Facebook just saying: ‘Give us the best years of your life, your kids can put up with whatever is left of you at a later stage’?

One of my students put it more bluntly: ‘If you translated this policy to other forms of discrimination in the workplace, such as racial discrimination, this would amount to saying to black people: “Look, you are very welcome here, but just to make it easier, we offer you this cream that will make your skin as white as everybody else’s here.”’ This new benefit essentially offers to a woman to be just like her male colleagues, happily stripped of all her female ‘impediments’. In some ways, that is gender discrimination at its worst.

Apple and Facebook deserve praise to recognize a common and pressing problem. Admittedly, they have policies regarding maternity benefits and childcare that are better than most other American companies. But the moral imagination they applied to this particular solution falls short of the creativity that made them billion dollar companies. If they are willing to throw $20,000 at the problem, why not offer more choice to both female and male employees? The women  (and men) contributing to the company are not just ‘human resources’ ready for maximum exploitation.
DM
Artwork by Keoni Kabral, reproduced under the Creative Commons License.
    
 


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