Mandatory labeling of foods with genetically modified organisms will raise food prices, according to a newly released study by the Washington State Academy of Sciences. The Academy reported scientific evidence contradicts many of the arguments made by opponents of genetically modified foods. The Academy published the study less than a month before a statewide Nov. 5 ballot initiative proposing to require GMO labeling on foods throughout the state. Washington voters rejected the proposed labeling mandate by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent in the Nov. 5 vote.
The Washington state legislature requested the Academy conduct the study to resolve disputes about whether and how much Initiative 522 (I-522) will cost consumers if voters approve mandatory labeling. A mid-October poll conducted by the state’s only nonpartisan, independent polling firm found voters were evenly split on the ballot initiative just three weeks before the election.
Genetic Modification Already Prevalent
The study observed genetically modified products are already prevalent in the foods people eat.
“In the 30 years since the first introduction and expression of a foreign gene into a plant, genetic engineering has revolutionized plant research and accelerated crop modifications, most notably, but not exclusively, herbicide resistance for weed control,” the study reported. “More than 170 million hectares of genetically modified (GM) crops were grown worldwide in 2012. The three most common GM crops grown in the world are corn, soybean and cotton. In the United States, over 90% of these crops are now GM. Because of this, about 70% of the U.S. processed foods contain some ingredients from GM plants or products of GM plants. Potential new GM plant and animal entrants into the market that are of special importance to the Washington State economy are apples, potatoes, and salmon.”
No Nutritional Impact
The study rebutted assertions that genetically modified foods are nutritionally inferior to non-modified foods.
“GM plants and animals are ‘substantially equivalent’ to their non-GM counterparts. The chemical composition and nutritional value of GM products falls within the range of values found in non-GM products,” the study found.
No Negative Health Consequences
Similarly, the study found there is no evidence genetically modified foods have negative human health consequences.
“There have been no statistically significant, repeatable evidence of adverse human health consequences due to GM products. Given the current state of knowledge and evidence, GM foods are considered to ‘not differ’ in safety as compared with foods with non-GM ingredients. Continued surveillance of food safety, including long-term health effects, is warranted for both GM and non-GM containing foods,” the study observed.
Several Factors Will Raise Costs
Trade issues will be one of the ways mandatory labeling will raise prices of both genetically modified foods and non-modified foods, the study noted.
“The lack of uniform standards, known as harmonization, and the potential for discrimination of policies among states and across countries and their agreements makes mandatory labeling of GM products a trade issue. Mandatory labeling, especially at a state versus federal level, is likely to affect trade and impose higher costs on firms producing and selling products in Washington. These costs are likely to be passed on to the consumer resulting in higher food prices. Importantly, these costs will be borne by firms and consumers for both GM and non-GM foods as labeling foods as non-GM will require oversight costs,” the study concluded.
Regulation and enforcement costs will also raise food prices under the proposed initiative.
“Responsibility and costs for monitoring and compliance of I-522 would accrue to both the public and private firms; the estimates have a wide range, and could vary from a few hundred thousand to millions of dollars annually. The wide range reflects the lack of ‘after the fact’ economic data and reliance on prospective estimates that have variable assumptions about the levels of administrative oversight, laboratory testing, and litigation associated with ensuring compliance,” the study reported.
Compliance, Certification Costly
Food safety expert Gregory Conko, executive director of Competitive Enterprise Institute, says the Washington Academy of Sciences properly determined the mandatory labeling proposal will raise consumer food prices.
“Most importantly, changing product labels to add the requisite information is not likely to be the biggest source of cost increases,” Conko said. “The costs of actual labeling are a tiny fraction of the costs of compliance and certification.”
“As the Washington State Academy of Sciences correctly points out, the impact of I-522 will not only fall on producers who use genetically engineered ingredients,” Conko added. “Arguably, its bigger impact will be on non-genetically engineered food producers.”
Even producers that produce foods without genetically modified ingredients will have to bear the costs of having their ingredients tested and verified, which will impose a significant financial burden, Conko explained.
“Either choice will be costly, though estimating exactly what the impact will be is quite difficult,” Conko said.
Flawed Right-to-Know Argument
Although advocates of GE labeling lean on the claim consumers have a right to know what’s in the food they eat, merely stating on a label that a product contains genetically modified ingredients doesn’t tell consumers what they’re eating, Conko said.
“GE is a process, it’s not a thing that’s in the food,” Conko stressed. “Nor is it the only breeding process that could give rise to a potentially material change in the safety or nutrition of a food. In fact, there are several breeding methods that scientists know to be far more risky than genetic engineering, but labeling advocates apparently aren’t interested in letting consumers know when those methods have been used.”
Voters last year defeated a similar ballot initiative in California.
Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.
“White Paper on Washington State Initiative 522 (I-522): Labeling of Foods Containing Genetically Modified Ingredients,” Washington State Academy of Sciences, Oct. 2013, http://www.washacad.org/initiatives/WSAS_i522_WHITEPAPER_100913.pdf