Health & Human Services

Does GMO Labeling Cost Consumers?

Voters in Washington State have to decide Nov. 5 who to believe in the debate on a ballot initiative that requires grocers and food producers to label products with genetically engineered ingredients.
by | November 1, 2013

“It’s not that complicated,” says consumer advocate Patty Lovera of the challenge of labeling genetically-modified foods without passing on new costs at the grocery store. Lovera, the assistant director of Food & Water Watch, made her comments in a Washington Post video segment just days before voters in Washington State decide whom to believe in the debate on the latest GMO labeling initiative.

There may be tons of new products carrying a GMO label because they contain ingredients such as corn or soy beans that are commonly modified, but the burden is insignificant on industry, which reflexively pushes back against every effort to give more information to consumers, Lovera added.

"They have this information at the beginning of the process; we're just asking them to carry it through," she said.

Unfortunately for voters, it is a bit more complicated. Much of the research in Washington State and California, where residents narrowly voted down a similar measure last year, argues that the cost of labeling genetically-engineered products isn’t from the act of stamping “Genetically-Modified Organism” across a can of beans—it’s from changing the production process to maintain purity and avoid the labelt. To be sure, though, there are detractors.

In Washington, a consulting firm prepared a report for the Washington Research Council that estimated a cost increase of $200 to $520 for a family of four based on scenarios that assumed producers would switch to more costly non-genetically-engineered inputs to avoid stigma. But the consultant, Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants, has faced criticsm for reported financial ties with agribusiness. Other studies warning of price increases also have ties to biotech and other industry groups, such as this 2004 report of potential labeling costs in the Philippines. At the same time, some studies concluding price spikes are a groundless fear were paid for by natural food interests. 
 
Others in Washington and California have similarly argued higher prices will result but without listing specific dollar impacts on consumers or giving examples when that was the case. But what does the European Union, where mandatory labeling has been in place since 1997, have to say? Officials argued in 2001 that there were no price spikes, as feared, or trade disruptions, though critics hold that EU labeling requirements have long been more motivated as an underhanded form of protectionism. Still, there doesn't seem to be any strong evidence that the European Union has experienced significant increases in the cost of food since enforcing labeling requirements. 
 
Some take issue with the assumptions of researchers like Northbridge. Michael Lipsky, a senior fellow at the public policy outfit Demos, called the Washington Research Council study “simplistic economic analysis,” arguing that production of non-GMO crops will inevitably increase as other states join the labeling requirements, which will eventually lower prices for consumers. The other issue, according to Lipsky: if foods with GMO ingredients are cheaper to make, demand for them will persist among people who don’t want to pay for the more costly alternative. 

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Health & Human Services