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, concluded 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 label, which history bears out. 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. That’s what happened across Europe after the Union’s 2004 law went into effect, argues the firm, Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants. The proposed laws in California and Washington are actually more stringent, which calls into question whether existing data provides overly conservative estimates of price hikes, says Northbridge.  
Others in Washington and California reached similar conclusions but without listing specific dollar impacts on consumers. They held up the EU as a case study and found that costs in the states could be worst because ballot initiatives in Washington and California call for the eventual absence of genetically-modified ingredients to avoid the label. In the EU a product can contain up to .9 percent genetically-engineered ingredients without carrying a GMO label. Studies in both Washington and California have questioned whether the proposed Washington standard is achievable. 
But some take issue with the assumptions of researchers. 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. 

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