The Effects of Mandated GMO Labeling
For thousands of years, humans have been getting better and better at manipulating our world. We change it to suit our needs, and at our best, we do so in such a way as to minimize our own impact. We turned inedible wild plants into edible crops by cross-breeding them, creation of genetic hybrids; and got better and better at that, until today when we have supermarkets full of lush, delicious, nutritious produce. We've even gone so far where we can edit individual genes, and make those crops resist pests without insecticides, feed many in lands ravaged by famine, and even thrive with less water, reducing agricultural runoff and pollution. But almost incomprehensibly, the better we get at producing cleaner food with a smaller environmental footprint, the more many well-fed people search for fault with our success. They find it immoral and unnatural. They protest it and aggressively market alternatives that shun decades of improvement. Today one manifestation of this opposition is worldwide grassroots movements to require mandatory warning labels on crops that have been improved with these gene editing techniques. Do these efforts help, or do they hinder? Thankfully we have solid science characterizing these effects. Today we're going to talk about the proven real-world effects of mandatory labeling on GMO foods.
Today's topic is government-mandated labeling, not to be confused with the commercially available marketing labels like Non-GMO Project, where companies pay to have their product associated with a popular fad — even though, in many cases, the effects on consumers and industry are similar. When consumers see a label, their behavior is altered. But how? This is what we're going to study.
The obvious question we all think to ask is what would these labels look like and say? Biotech opponents might want them to be warning labels with a great big skull and crossbones, while biotech proponents might prefer a happy little sunrise icon cheerfully boasting that this food was proudly made with the latest and greatest crop strains. It is a battle of ideas, and not a matter of science. Should foods be labeled based upon their content (like ingredient lists do now), or upon the process by which they were made (as the GMO labeling proponents propose)? One describes what you're buying, but the other describes the idea behind it. It is purely an ideological question.
Nevertheless, labeling does have a measurable impact. It reduces consumer purchases of certain products, which alters the fortunes of certain manufacturers, which changes their buying habits, which changes the economic landscape of the farms, and thus changes what crops they can plant.
In more than 20 years of GMO crops being in our food supply, the benefits have been solidly proven. We know the products on the market are completely safe. With well over a trillion GMO meals having been served, there's been not a single health consequence to a single person traceable to the genes of a vegetable, nor would we expect there to be. The growth in yield and reduction in the use of chemicals have been a boon to agriculture unprecedented in modern times. In the United States, the introduction of GMO cotton gave farmers a 36% reduction in the use of insecticide, a 10% increase in yield, and a 58% increase in profit margin. Those are incredible numbers for any business, but compare them to China. There, GMO cotton resulted in a 65% reduction in insecticide, a 24% increase in yield, and a 470% increase in profit margin. Spain is the EU's largest producer of GMOs, and the introduction of Bt Corn resulted in a 63% reduction in the use of insecticide, a 6% increase in yield, and a 70% increase in profit margins. And all this is to say nothing of reduced water usage: drought resistant cotton has cut water needed for irrigation by an astonishing 50%; the introduction of drought resistant corn to Ethiopia has quadrupled the size of their corn crop. Overall, drought resistant GMO crops allow 15% higher yield per acre, and greatly reduce soil erosion into rivers and lakes.
But while the science is unambiguously on the side of engineered crops, public knowledge of that science isn't. In 2018, ABC News conducted a telephone survey and found that only 35% of Americans think GMO crops are safe to eat, while 52% think they're unsafe, despite no evidence of this. What's more, a clear 93% majority believe the federal government should require labeling on food products containing GMOs, with 57% saying they would be less likely to buy products so labeled.
In 2015, the Pew Research Center published their report Public and Scientists' Views on Science and Society which compared opinions among scientists against those of the general public on a wide variety of topics. The single greatest difference they found — on any science issue — was a spread of 51%, and it was on the question of whether GMO foods are believed to be generally safe or unsafe. While 88% of the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which includes scientists in all disciplines) believe GMOs to be safe, only 37% of the general public thinks so. It's a pretty poor starting place we find ourselves in, and this is even before warning labels have been introduced. What effect might that have?
In 2014, Dr. Juanjuan Zhang, an economist and marketing strategist at MIT, conducted a study to determine how just the idea of labeling affects public perception. Subjects rated the safety of GMO crops on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being completely unsafe and 5 being completely safe. One group was given this statement:
These people rated the safety of GMOs as 3.62. The other group was given this statement:
This group rated the safety of GMOs at 2.65. In other words, merely the suggestion that mandatory labeling is being considered caused people to rate the product as 37% more unsafe (if you're questioning the math, remember the baseline is 1, not 0). There was no information about what such labeling would look like or say; it was nothing more than the idea of labeling. That's all it takes to persuade people that a product is dangerous.
So with hard data showing that customers are fearful of products labeled as containing GMOs, what happens next?
The most obvious large-scale study of what happens when we require GMO labeling is Europe. In 1997, the European Union enacted the Novel Food Regulation, which applies to a wide assortment of foods: not only anything genetically modified, but also anything made with a new preparation technique or any new technology, even foods containing exotics fruits or algae or fungi. Where the rubber meets the road is that in Europe, ingredient lists on food packaging must specify whenever a given ingredient is genetically modified, often parenthetically right there in the list. It's something few shoppers probably see, and doesn't come with a warning or anything like a scary icon. In 2013, the editors of Scientific American wrote about what happened:
Consumers then find themselves in a situation in which there is reduced choice in the market; and what remains is not exactly the most affordable. Scientific American continued:
When the state of Vermont implemented its own mandatory GMO labeling requirement, Ben & Jerry's ice cream — a Vermont icon — vowed to keep their prices the same. It turned out not to be possible. Replacing their traditional ingredients with non-GMO alternatives ultimately required them to raise their prices by 11%.
Not only would the reduction of GMOs hurt consumers in the pocketbook, it would hit some with severe health problems. Vitamin A deficiency has long been a worldwide problem in developing nations, mostly in Africa and Asia, causing up to half a million children to go blind each year, and killing an additional 650,000 annually. Today our most successful weapon against it is Golden Rice, developed 20 years ago to provide up to 60% of the Vitamin A needed by children in those countries, but only just now coming into use. It's a genetically engineered product, and mandatory labeling would frighten consumers away from it.
Correction: An earlier version of this incorrectly stated that Golden Rice had been in use for 20 years; in fact, anti-biotech activists like Greenpeace had largely successfully prevented that. In addition, it greatly understated the number of children who died annually as a result of that activism, and has been corrected in this transcript.
Other health consequences concern new allergies. In the US, almost all cottonseed oil is GMO, but peanut oil is not. For products containing roasted nuts, they'd have to introduce a proven allergen that can be fatal in some cases.
So let's summarize what we've learned about the effects of mandatory labeling of GMO food products:
If that sounds sensationalist (which it does), it's not. All of the above is proven to happen, and a powerful driver is labeling of foods. The type of labeling we're talking about conveys misinformation, and when people have bad information, they use it to drive bad decisions. Nevertheless, we're facing a situation where around 90% of the population in almost every country surveyed wants foods containing GMOs to be labeled as such. It's a case where poor public science literacy is likely to have a broad harmful impact on health, the economy, and the environment.
To maximize human, economic, and environmental safety, food labeling should stick to the contents of the food, not the idea behind it.
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