The real cost of GMO labeling
I will concede that if we are only considering the cost of labeling foods as GMO-free (or containing GMOs), the cost is probably small. Companies always are changing their packaging to meet consumer tastes, new regulations, or because of some marketing strategy. Some companies test-market new flavors or quantities, and they create whole new packaging for that. I’m guessing that most food companies have no cost concerns about changing labels to include some GMO-free certification label.
But the direct cost of labeling is not the only cost that is associated with GMO labeling. There are higher costs, some of which impact people who can afford increased food costs the least:
- GMO-free compliance is more than slapping a sticker on a box of cereal. It includes other issues such as sourcing of ingredients, certifying that the ingredients are GMO free, and separating production into GMO and GMO free.
- GMO-free foods, such as corn, may be in short supply for a long time, driving up the commodity prices of corn, which drive up the cost of the product on the shelf.
- Regulations, such as they are, will vary from state to state. Maybe one state requires inspections from every step of the way to final product. Maybe another state just requires certifications. If the US has 50 different regulatory authorities (it does) for labeling, then there could conceivably be 50 different rules, all of which add cost.
- Regulatory compliance is much more than the label itself. It filters down (pdf) through every part of the chain from seed producers (yes, Monsanto) to farmers (small family farms and huge Big Agra operations) to grain elevators to processors & manufacturers to retail stores. Each of those steps would incur higher costs, sometimes substantially higher costs, just to comply with GMO labeling regulations. And they aren’t going to absorb those costs, they will pass them along.
- Consumers may prefer GMO-free foods, despite the utter lack of scientific data supporting any inherent difference between GMO and GMO-free foods, just because they believe it’s better. Consumer pricing isn’t necessarily just related to cost, but it’s related to demand. If a food marketer thinks they can charge more for non-GMO food, they will. I hate to be cynical, but since when have “environmentalists” helped corporations make more money?
- Livestock, which are often fed GMO crops, conceivably need to be labeled as “GMO.” Again, sourcing non-GMO food sources will drive up their costs as well. So the issues are more than just boxes of cereal, but also protein foods like chicken, beef, pork, and other meats.
- Legal costs could be immense, and ultimately are added into the cost of foods. We could measure, in small units of time, how long it might take before someone sues every part of the manufacturing chain claiming that one gram of GMO contaminated food made it into the box of Cheerios, causing some horrific medical condition. I’m sure there are vultures already circling.
Real economists and scientists have actually looked at all of the costs of GMO labeling, examining every point I listed above. A Washington State study concluded that it would cost consumers in Oregon (which was considering anti-GMO legislation at the time) $150 to 920 million a year. For the 1.5 million families in the state, that could add up to approximately $100 to 600 per year in additional food costs.
But I’m not just cherry picking one study to “prove my point.” No, the evidence of higher costs for labeling are found in other independent studies. For example, a study at Cornell University showed that if labeling were implemented in New York state, citizens would incur additional annual food costs (per family) an average of $800. Even middle income families would be stressed by such an increase.
Now maybe wealthy science-denying liberals can afford another $100, or even $800, per year in food costs. But those on fixed incomes, like retirees, or those who depend upon financial assistance like SNAP (once called Food Stamps), will be forced to make hard choices, made worse, if one of the consequences of this labeling is that manufacturers stop making “GMO” products.
But it gets worse. Right now, most foods can be labeled non-GMO if they have less than 1% GMO content. Some environmental activists want that to drop to 0.5% and even lower. At that point, the costs become almost prohibitive, because it’s pretty close to impossible to remove all sources of GMO crops from our food system.
We would have to create a cost prohibitive dual system of food production, storage, manufacturing, and distribution. It is estimated that just the step down to 0.5% GMO content could add up to 20% costs to food production in the US. So that typical Oregon family will have to spend between $120 to $720 per year in additional food costs, just because a few anti-GMO activists want it.
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Remember, all of these costs are being forced upon consumers for precisely zero medical or scientific value.
Again, those who are wealthy will be able to afford these cost increases, even at the higher end of the estimates. But many people, where food costs are a constant battle, would bear an inordinate burden, complicating an already stressful process to get enough calories to feed their families.
As someone with progressive political leanings, I am flabbergasted that anti-GMO environmentalists, who are generally socially progressive like me, completely ignore or deny the issue of additional costs. By placing their heads in the sand, they don’t offer up any alternatives to make sure our poorest citizens.
When many of us compare the anti-GMO people to climate change deniers, it’s scary how close it hits. Both seem to care only about their unscientific beliefs, not about the consequences. And the larger issue is that the ramification of those higher prices will fall more squarely on those who can least afford it.
It’s as if their principles, both of which are, in fact, science denialism, matter more than humanity. That’s bad enough when we talk about right wingers and their climate change denialism. But it’s simply disgusting when so-called progressives are set in promulgating a regulation that is based on pseudoscience and will harm those whom we should protect the most.
We do not need GMO labeling. It’s not supported by science. And it drives up costs. No thanks.