The possibilities of genetic engineering, particularly as applied to human beings, have provoked considerable debate for over two decades, but more recently the focus of public concern, at least, has turned to genetically modified (GM) food. Food has occasionally caught the attention of philosophers (Telfer, 1996) and bioethicists (Mepham, 1996) but is now ripe for further attention in the light of the implications of GM for policy in health, economics and politics. Macer has identified opposing reactions to novel foods—to prefer to eat down the food chain, on the one hand, and to embrace technology, on the other (Macer, 1997). One question that has given rise to some interest is why consumer attitudes to genetically modified food have been so much more strongly adverse in Europe, particularly in the UK, than in the USA.
This paper explores the ways in which the food ethics debate has been constructed in recent debates in the UK, with special reference to the similarities to and differences from what are on the face of it analogous debates in medical ethics. What is special about food, as opposed to drugs, which makes it appropriate or inappropriate to construct the arguments in the terms that currently predominate? This will involve looking in particular at the application of the principle of autonomy and the argument from consumer choice.