Advocates for the mandatory labeling of foods made with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) present some compelling arguments. The strongest of these is the consumer’s right to know. Safe to say, all people concerned with health are interested in whether the foods they eat are safe, and whether those foods are contributing to their overall health and well-being.
Food labeling is the consumer’s first line of defense. But how are we to get the most accurate information? Is it effective to allow the marketplace of food producers and processors to supply us with the data we need to make proper choices at the supermarket? Or is government regulation the only way to achieve the goal?
One way to evaluate these questions is to consider a private-market-driven solution compared to a legislative solution. We might be surprised to find the potential for positive outcomes resulting from voluntary labeling, and possibly some negative outcomes from mandatory labeling of GMOs.
1) Public perception/labeling bias. The primary motivation to mandate GMO labeling is to protect the public from potential health risks. Yet, in addition to the suspicions about some GMOs (e.g., rBST/growth hormone in milk products), there are expected benefits to be derived from others (genes that fortify rice with dietary vitamin A, create insect-resistant crops, extend the freshness of produce, etc.).
Unfortunately, compulsory labeling is typically one-sided, informing of risks but not benefits. Arguably, the label is a de facto warning. (Example: “Government Warning” label on alcoholic beverages advises of risk to pregnant women, but doesn’t inform of benefits to, in the case of red wine, fat processing and relative heart health.) On the other hand, if labeling laws were to require merely a small symbol or other indication that GMOs were used in farming/production or processing, the information may be too limited to be useful…except to serve as the intended warning.
2) Consumer choice. When food producers and processors are free to voluntarily label products with information about potential benefits or risks of GMO and non-GMO ingredients, consumers receive more information, both positive and negative, upon which to make informed choices. With mandatory labeling, consumers may be subjected to insufficient information at best, or misinformed claims by regulatory or lobbyist groups, as these groups and their initiatives will be dictating the content of the labels.
3) Competition equals consumer benefits. By mandating labeling, government essentially hands non-GMO producers and sellers a competitive edge: a. GMO producers would bear the cost of compliance; b. As the public perceives the GMO label as a warning, they may be more likely shop “health food” stores and grocery aisles.
In addition, the economic disadvantage to GMO food producers and sellers would lead to predictable results:
• increased costs passed on to consumers
• a reduction in research and development of GMOs
Alternatively, voluntary labeling allows GMO and non-GMO producers to share the cost of informing the consumer about their products, and reap the benefit of serving their customer base. Those suppliers who elect not to label forego the additional costs to do so, and keep prices down for their customers.
4) Foreign trade. A number of countries already regulate GMOs, but fewer impose labeling requirements. Region-specific labeling standards increase the potential for trade barriers, limiting imports and exports of foodstuffs based on disparities between those standards. Consequently, a reduction in purchasing options (consumer choices), as well as economic implications should be expected.
5) Slippery slope. If it is assumed or decided that GMO foods sold in grocery stores must be labeled, wouldn’t the next step be to mandate labeling of food served in restaurants? This would be much more complicated, of course, as food service establishments would have to identify the sources and labeling of all food products that comprise the dishes they serve. Despite assurances from labeling advocates that this step is not being considered, it must be acknowledged that most laws have a predictable habit of starting out narrow in scope and then widening with the passing years, one regulation leading to the next.
Consumers need and desire to make informed choices. The path to get there is up for debate. Some states are considering GMO labeling initiatives, like the one on the California ballot in November, supported by the California Right To Know coalition. Will the food industry step up to voluntarily meet the demand for positive labeling? Its action or inaction will likely determine whether the private market—sellers and buyers—will retain their freedom and choices, or whether the call for government regulation will ring louder.
Phillips, Peter and Grant Isaac. (1998). GMO labeling: Threat or opportunity? AgBioForum, 1(1), 25-30. Available on the World Wide Web: http://www.agbioforum.org/v1n1/v1n1a07-phillips.htm.
“Rice.” GMO Compass. N.p., 4 Dec. 2008. Web. 16 July 2012. <http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/grocery_shopping/crops/24.genetically_modified_rice.html>.