Tuesday Talks With Dr. Patterson

August 19, 2014

In May 2014, Vermont passed a law requiring food products containing genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified organisms (GMO) as ingredients to be labeled as such. The Vermont law will become effective in July 2016, making it the first GMO labeling law to be enforced. Connecticut and Maine passed a similar law in 2013, but delayed implementation until certain requirements are met. The Connecticut law will not be enforced until at least four other states (at least one contiguous) with a combined population of 20 million pass similar laws. Voter referendums calling for GMO food labels were defeated in California in 2012 and in Washington in 2013. Efforts are currently underway to bring a referendum to Colorado voters in November. And, as many as 20 other states are expected to consider GMO labeling through legislation or referendums in the coming year.

To date, GMO labeling has not been required in the United States, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ruled that GE crops are “substantially equivalent” to their non-GE counterparts, indicating that there are no substantiated concerns over consumption of foods containing GE ingredients. In contrast, much of Europe and Japan require foods containing GE ingredients to be labeled accordingly.

The primary argument used to support GMO labeling in the United States is that consumers have the right to know. On other issues, this has been a powerful and persuasive argument. In 2008, the U.S. Congress passed legislation requiring country of origin labeling (COOL) for imported meats and fruits and vegetables. Proponents of this legislation pointed to past food safety incidents related to imported meat or produce and argued that the consumer had the right to know, even though the FDA is also required to provide assurance on the safety of imported foods. Interestingly, some arguing against GMO labeling, argued for country of origin labeling.

Opponents to the state GMO labeling initiatives point to the new costs it will impose on consumers, when food processors must label food products differently for different state markets. This argument was acknowledged in the enforcement requirements in Maine and Connecticut. A study on a proposed GMO labeling requirement in New York estimated that it would raise household grocery costs about $500 more per year. Similar arguments were also made against country of origin labeling. The increased cost for food processors and ultimately consumers is an argument the Grocery Manufacturers of America made when it filed suit against the State of Vermont in June 2014 over its GMO labeling requirement.

So, under the proposed GMO labeling requirements, would the consumer really have any new information? Currently, about 90 percent of all corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are GE varieties. Furthermore, it is estimated that 80 percent of all foods found in grocery stores contain GE ingredients. A GMO labeling requirement seems a lot like the warning label on a fast food restaurant’s coffee cup – Caution: Contents Hot. Most expect the contents to be hot. Most Americans should expect most food products to contain GE ingredients, unless otherwise specified.

If consumers do not want food products with GE ingredients, they have at least two choices in the marketplace. First, USDA certified organic foods cannot come from GE crops or contain GE ingredients, even as feed for animals. Second, there are some non-GMO labeled foods that are certified through private organizations. This second option is intriguing and raises some questions on whether these products are better.

Many scientists have argued that the development of GE crops has had positive environmental benefits. They have reduced overall pesticide use and promoted conservation tillage practices, both of which improve water quality. So, would a non-GMO food, produced using conventional agricultural practices, including the application of pesticides and possibly conventional tillage practices, be better?

The consumer right to know is a strong argument and is rhetorically similar to other mom and apple pie appeals. Indeed, perfect consumer information is a tenant of our free market system. However, when new information requirements impose new costs on consumers and when the new information it yields is not that informative, is it necessary? Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”


Dr. Paul Patterson is associate dean for instruction for the College of Agriculture and Professor of Agricultural Economics.