Are GMO Food Labels Worth the Cost?

The state of the universe.
May 20 2014 7:17 AM

The Price of Your Right to Know

Calculating the hidden costs of genetically modified food labels.

Labels on bags of snack foods indicate they are non-GMO food products.
The voluntary “non-GMO” label, started in 2008, inadvertently sows confusion.

Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The impassioned quest to label foods made with genetically modified organisms is heading for the states. “Don’t think that it’s not coming to you,” warned Hawaii Attorney General David Louie at a meeting of state attorneys general.

They certainly understood. In 2014 alone, 25 states have proposed 67 pieces of legislation related to GMO labeling. After near misses in California and Washington, advocates recently ushered a labeling initiative through Vermont’s more receptive legislature. Maine and Connecticut have also approved labeling laws, although they are contingent on further regional support. Whether the labeling debate continues to play out on a state-by-state basis, or the federal government eventually intervenes, chances are good that we’re looking into a future food supply dotted with mandatory GMO labels.

More than 90 percent of Americans think this is a good idea. As matters now stand, the voluntary “non-GMO” label, started in 2008, inadvertently sows confusion. Not every conventional food made with non-GMO ingredients uses the non-GMO label (a company may want to avoid the testing and regulatory costs). As a result, it’s impossible to know if the can of soup you want to buy—specifically, a can lacking an organic or non-GMO label—contains GMOs or not. Furthermore, non-GMO labels have been placed on products such as orange juice, suggesting that there are genetically modified oranges on the market when, in fact, there aren’t. None of this seems quite right. To a meaningful extent, a GMO label would bring some clarity to the situation.

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But clarity comes at a cost—and how much cost is the subject of intense debate. Those opposed to labeling for financial reasons rely primarily on a report prepared with industry support by the Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants. It concludes that labeling “would have a substantial impact on California consumers” by altering “how many of the foods they eat are produced.” Changes in production, it explains, “would make that food more expensive.”

Labeling supporters point to a study commissioned by the Alliance for Natural Health, a U.K.-based organization dedicated to “promoting sustainable health and freedom of choice in healthcare through good science and good law.” This report claims “consumers will likely see no increases in prices.” Reflecting this polarization, a host of additional studies estimate that food costs could rise anywhere from a couple of dollars per person to 10 percent of a family’s food bill.

This disparity hinges less on sloppy science or ideological bias than a basic disagreement over how food suppliers and consumers would react to a freshly minted GMO label. One side—the no cost/low cost advocates—equates a labeling mandate with little more than the paper and ink required to manufacture the label. The idea here is that food suppliers and consumers wouldn’t necessarily shift their purchasing choices in the face of a GMO designation. Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott gave a nod to this assumption when he asked, “Ever seen the words ‘new and improved’ on some boxed delicacy?” His implication was that the consumer’s gaze glosses over new labels all the time without leading to a radical shift in purchasing behavior. Why would it be any different with a GMO label?

Those who see the GMO label leading to higher food prices begin (as they should) by highlighting the sham science that’s been used to vilify GMOs over the past two decades. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that GMOs are safe to eat. That hasn’t prevented the disingenuous association of genetic modification with maladies ranging from cancer, autism, impotence, allergies, and infertility to farmer suicides in India. Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State and an editor of the Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Food Consumption and Policy, explained in an email, “requiring GE labels serves to promote the kind of thinking” that’s rooted in “pseudo-scientific theories that have no basis in solid science.” Perhaps it’s not “new and improved” that will pop to mind when consumers see a GMO label, but rather something more like “skull and crossbones.”

Realistically speaking, most consumers faced with a GMO label will neither automatically bivouac to the organic (or non-GMO) aisle nor react with complete nonchalance. It seems safe to split the difference and assume that a mandatory GMO label would at least create a modest demand for non-GMO corn, soy, canola, and sugar beets. Based on this assumption, we can begin to better assess what exactly is at stake when it comes to prognosticating the cost of a GMO label.               

One change seems absolutely certain: The food system’s foundation would tectonically shift to accommodate dual ingredient streams (if not multiple streams). It would have no choice. GMO and non-GMO crops are currently massively mingled. The logistics of crop segregation, says Jennie Schmidt, a Maryland corn farmer, terrifies conventional farmers. It has also led the Washington State Academy of Sciences, in a report prepared last October, to write, “The costs of actual labeling are a tiny fraction of the costs of compliance and certification.”

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