Adam Smith portrait

GMOs Improve Commerce and Social Justice

Written by Kendal Hirschi

Adam Smith and Genetically Modified Foods

Adam Smith portrait
Adam Smith (1723-1790) was a Scottish economist and philosopher.

Adam Smith may be known as the father of capitalism but he was also a man profoundly interested in social justice.  In “The Wealth of Nations” Smith’s most famous work showcased how commerce operates between individuals seeking to maximize their own returns. 

In his less noted work “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, he analyzed social interactions and how individuals aspire to help and support one another. Smith’s interest in social relationships trumped his interest in trade as he was constantly fine-tuning  “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, his first book, right up until his death – long after he had put “The Wealth of Nations” to bed.  Here I argue that if Adam Smith was living today, he would endorse genetically modified foods to both improve commerce and provide social justice. 

As described by historian Thomas J. Ward:

One could argue that Smith’s ultimate quest was social justice. He
advocated an open market with economic and social protocols between countries that would result in an overall improvement in the living conditions of the common citizen. … Smith’s “invisible spectator’s” concern for the other, including the downtrodden of his society, are prerequisites to facilitate economic opportunities, greater social justice, and peace.

Adam Smith’s Views on Religion and Social Justice

GMOs and Wealth

Within the ivory towers, today’s plant biologists are improving crop productivity for academic wealth: papers and research grants, the paucity of which is a subject for another time! Given current regulatory hurdles,  the dream of bringing these crop improvements to the world’s poor is a fantasy. There is no mysterious “invisible hand” operating in the global market place to thwart the use of GMOs. It is a systematic campaign of misinformation by ill-informed, malicious groups. (GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. For more information, see Intro to GMOs by the SciMoms.)

When Smith referred to the “invisible hand” it was a metaphor for the motives that intentionally caused actions, which once taken, had unintended consequences.  The ‘unmistakable hand” of the anti-GMO campaign has been to suppress the wealth of impoverished nations. 

Agricultural development is a powerful tool to end poverty. Growth in the agriculture sector is two to four times more effective in raising incomes among the poor. If GMO crops are not utilized to save water, diminish fertilizer costs, and improve yield we have effectively limited the tools available to the world’s poor. Anti-GMO groups are handcuffing the world’s poorest people to their current plight.

GMOs and Moral Sentiment

Smith argues in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” that our moral ideas and actions are the fabric of our social selves. He argues that our social behavior is a better guide to moral action than reason. Though scientists (and agbiotech) are self-interested, we have to work out how to live alongside others without doing each other harm. 

The scientific consensus (and it is a consensus!) finds that GMO plants are safe and don’t seem to harm the environment. Hundreds of studies have been done (and millions of dollars spent) to show unequivocally that GMO plants are safe. Scientists are not creating GMO foods to harm consumers or the environment. Can the same be said for vocal groups that are anti-GMO?

The Bottom Line

Economic considerations of profitability, efficiency, and productivity are paramount for agriculture. If we forgo monetary gain to maintain specific environmental standards this would point to a moral agriculture viewpoint. Adam Smith would want us to take this moral perspective.

However, GMO foods do not require this choice to be made, as they are productive, efficient, and environmentally sound.  By Smith’s standards, the anti-GMO rhetoric is difficult to defend because it does not support profit, efficiency, or most importantly, social justice. 

Written by Guest Expert

Kendal Hirschi works at the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine and is Associate Director of Research at the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M. His research program centers on many biomedical issues and has published papers using bacteria, yeast, crops, zebrafish, mice, and human subjects. His research goal is to increase the nutritional content of crops, in collaboration with clinical faculty at Baylor College of Medicine. His long-term goal is to bridge the chasm between plant biology and nutritional sciences.

Editors note: Thomas J. Ward quote added 3 February 2019 to provide a definition for social justice in the context of Adam Smith, which is different from the definition that might commonly be assumed in 2019.


  1. Finally a logical answer to the SJW types who have been whining ever since the release of GE crops. Thanks

  2. I too, see a vast need for better nutrition in our foods. When you walk down the aisles of most grocery stores, 95% of the foods available are very poor quality, why is that? If big AG is focused on helping to provide the best agricultural products (conventional and GMO), why oh why is their such a food quality dessert across the store shelves. It seems ridiculous to believe that big AG is seriously having the best health of consumers foremost in mind, while dishing out such poor nutrition to our children. Toxic contaminant adverse effects, plus the loss of major micronutrient content from or soils and resultant food, harms protein production and integrity of protein ability to fold accurately to be performing necessary body functions for maintaining health. The food industry is deficient to the degree that our food is junk food. How is the food industry going to change emphasis from making ‘profit’ at any cost to actually perform for societal wellbeing with integrity. Producing better GMOs will not result in adequate integrity while the whole food industry is incompetent for protecting public health. The state of industrial food production is atrocious. Unfortunately, current GMO reliance on massive use of GE restricted to RR crops heavily sprayed with, and containing increasing glyphosate pesticide residues, is a risk that is not convincingly vetted by industrial science with biased funding precluding the full use of the scientific method. Research funding that is product-supportive, is far more prevalent than funding that is product-unsupportive when potential adverse effects are not clarified.

  3. The EPA was envisioned to provide the essential checks and balances on the food industry, by ‘independent’ assessment with scientific integrity, this has not developed to any adequate degree. The EPA is handcuffed by the legislators that do not want due diligence done for public health oversight, out of fear of loss of lobby-supplied election funding if the EPA makes waves of due diligence. The EPA and other governmental agencies are NOT funded to do due diligence in checks and balances for the food industry shortfalls in integrity.

  4. Ray, the food that is available is there because that is what sells. the way to change that is to change consumer demand. If and when such demand results in rising sales of fresher more nutritious foods. “Industrial foods” will also change their offerings. “profit at any cost” The battle cry of the ignorant. That literally can’t be true. Full use of the scientific method is not precluded. Research funding is none of your business unless your money is being used. It is not the food industry’s place to guard public health. that is up to individuals and medical professionals. 95%? prove it. You really missed the point and still refuse to learn.

  5. No Eric, it IS everybody’s responsibility for the wellbeing of the children of our grandchildren in the future. If corporations have ‘personhood’ standing, then they need to behave as we want people to behave responsibly. If they don’t, they are being anti-social, and becoming in need of correction. I think it is you missing the point. Full use of the scientific method is curtailed by the funding biases to prove products ‘right’ but not adequately supportive of research that turns out to be product unsupportive. There IS an inherent responsibility of corporations to be good citizens by doing better science before flooding the markets with questionable products that can harm… without better vetting.

  6. Incorrect, You have no authority to decide what is my responsibility. Also, the Court decision didn’t give corporations personhood. that is a myth spread by opponents. What it did do was to make the correct decision that people don’t lose their right to free speech because they are doing so as stockholders. “funding biases?” Try reading Marc’s paper on industry studies. Your comment is nothing but a shill gambit. The responsibility lies with the consumers. Corporations can’t be required to produce items that will not sell. Your leftist bias is showing again.

  7. You could make your own website on which to make off-topic comments and call people names if you wish, but you may not do so here. Refer to our comment policy:

    Edited to add: This comment is in reference to the first comment on the post which uses an insult that has nothing to do with this post other than the fact that some of the words are the same as some of the words in this post. Random use of a word intended as an insult is not polite or meaningful, and thus violates our comment policy. I have clarified the definition of social justice in the context of Adam Smith by adding a quote from a paper that pre-dates the time when the pejorative came into common use.

    Apologies to all, one of our plugins is interfering with threaded commenting at the moment. We are working on this with the plugin developer.

  8. We are in an emergency of chronic diseases. Our health, especially the health of our children and grandchildren, is declining rapidly. Obesity, diabetes, and neurologic pathogenicity are increasing very rapidly. We have a great big problem to deal with very quickly. Addiction to junk food is driving health decline. If ‘GMOs improve commerce and social justice’, we had better be quick to assess with scientific integrity, just how they are influencing the junk food addiction (pro and con). We had better take more personal responsibility to increase funding for the best scientific research we can possibly do to make sure we are not contributing to the declining health condition of our young people, or we can kiss our progeny goodby. We ALL have this responsibility to ensure that we are doing more good than harm, and the food crop production industry DOES have responsibility for influencing the resultant food product sales industry. We ALL have a very personal stake in this. We ALL must insist that corporations also have responsibility in this. And, we have no time to waste, the health of young people is declining far too fast.

  9. No Ray, I am not responsible for other peoples decisions. There is no “we” making decisions. Individuals make decisions and you don’t get to decide for others. that is called absolute moralism. You have no evidence for any causative effect of GE crops on the self inflicted problems you cite. If you get fat. that is your problem. It isn’t because I grew some GE sweet corn or someone else grew GE sugar beets instead of conventional ones.

  10. As I understand Smith’s philosophy, you are both partially correct. We make decisions as individuals but our decisions become collective actions in the marketplace. From Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers (as quoted in Thomas J. Ward, Adam Smith’s Views on Religion and Social Justice):

    Adam Smith’s laws of the market are basically simple. They tell us that
    the outcome of a certain kind of behavior in a certain social framework
    will bring about perfectly definite and foreseeable results. Specifically they
    show us how the drive of individual self-interest in an environment of
    similarly motivated individuals will result in competition; and they further
    demonstrate how competition will result in the provision of those goods
    that society wants, in the quantities that society desires, and at the prices
    society is prepared to pay.

    Individuals are society. Society wants foods that are salty and fatty but we want to pretend we are healthy. These factors have led to companies marketing chips and cookies with non-GMO health halos at a higher price (as I describe here and people are happy to buy them. Everyone else buys chip and cookie with GMOs.

    The fault of this system isn’t GMOs. Instead, GMOs have become an easy scapegoat for all the ills of agriculture, a convenient fall-guy that distracts us from the real concerns in agriculture, international trade, corporate control, and so on (as I describe here

    To be clear, GMOs are not the problem. Remove GMOs and herbicides still exist. Remove GMOs and people won’t suddenly eat the recommended daily amount of vegetables. And so on. That said, GMOs so far also haven’t been much of a solution to myriad problems, either. So far they have just helped the current system in producing a lot of meat and sugar.

    Is that GMO’s fault? No, obviously, biotech is just a process, and can’t advocate for itself. Is that scientists’ fault? Perhaps some blame lies on us for not being better advocates but biotech scientists have busily created hundreds if not thousands of amazing traits that would help farmers reduce inputs and be more sustainable, that would help improve social good with better nutrition or other health benefit, and help consumers with desired traits like flavor and novelty to encourage people to enjoy their produce even more, and reduced spoilage to reduce food waste. But those products don’t come to market because of the fear that has been promoted by anti-GMO groups. Onerous regulation means only the biggest seed companies can bring only the most profitable traits to market (like herbicide tolerance). And consumer fear means few food manufacturers are willing to sell GMOs anyway so why bother going through the regulatory process. So all the awesome traits sit on the shelf until the seeds aren’t viable anymore.

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