Confessions of Boulder, Colorado liberal: Why I opposed GMO ‘right to know’ bill

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I live in Boulder, Colo., where voters recently rejected the GMO labeling measure—proposition 105—by 54 percent to 45 percent.

Which way did I vote? I didn’t. I’m not a U.S. citizen. And with no right to vote on anything, I’ve been pretty lazy these last few years on all things political. But something about this result did capture my attention because if you’d expect any city to vote for GMO labeling it would be Boulder. Full of leftie, aging hippies, Wholefoods markets, and marijuana dispensaries, Boulder is a liberal bastion —maybe the most liberal in the country and just the type place you’d think would vote overwhelmingly for such a measure.

Although I’d given the issue little thought, I found the GMO label supporters’ “right to know” slogan intuitively appealing. Of course I want to know what is in my food, I already scour labels for MSG, which gives me migraines. To me it just makes sense. But maybe Boulder’s community, 34.8 percent of whom have advanced degrees (according to a 2011 Demographic Profile by Boulder Economic Council), know something that I don’t.

Maybe it is the cost—an argument I had heard bantered around on the radio and in the local papers; something about labeling costing the average family in the U.S. $500 a year. Couldn’t be, I thought to myself: I mean the labels are on there already, and it’s only a case of a bit more printing ink.

How much can a GMO label cost? Seriously.

So I started my own little informal investigation. First stop: a 14-page study, published by the Portland-based consulting firm ECONorthwest, which was commissioned by Consumers Union, the national organization that publishes Consumer Reports. Consumers Union is well known for aggressively supporting labeling and claiming that GMO foods are potentially harmful, although every major science organization in the world says differently. This study says the median cost to consumers would only be $2.30 per year. In an interview with the Oregonian, Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, said:

That’s less than a penny a day for each consumer. A tiny fraction of the cost estimates put out by industry and certainly a very small price to pay for consumers’ right to know if their food has been genetically engineered.

There, I was right. But, the opposition to labeling says the report overlooks crucial factors in calculating the costs of labeling.

So, wait a minute, the cost of the labeling is not just the cost of the printing ink, paper and glue. Is it more than that? To learn more I then reviewed a white paper published by the Washington State Academy of Sciences, an independent organization affiliated with the US government’s National Academy of Sciences, published in 2013: Washington State Initiative 522 (I-522): Labeling of Foods Containing Genetically Modified Ingredients.

The scientists conclude that mandatory labeling would impose a multitude of higher costs on food companies and farmers, both directly and indirectly. Direct costs would include segregation of GMO and non-GMO products at each stage of production and transportation, certification and testing and compliance costs. Indirect costs would include managing GM and non-GMO crops to mitigate cross-pollination and increased resistance in non-targeted insects and weeds in the product supply chain. Totaling up all these costs, of which the actual labeling is only a small contribution, the paper states that the annual costs to the food industry of labeling would range from $150 million to $920 million—a cost which would obviously raise food prices.

But the white paper doesn’t stop there. The scientists point out that some studies have suggested that mandatory labeling would deem some GMO-products unsavory to the customer and they’d lose out in a competitive market. If that is the case, farmers and food companies would most likely substitute ingredients in their products with higher-priced non-GM products. This would increase food prices even further, thanks to the substitution costs and the higher ingredient costs.

While the Washington State study doesn’t include “substation costs” in calculating the costs to the food industry, a 2014 study by independent researchers at Cornell University does do so. This study assesses what the added costs for New York food consumers if mandatory GMO labeling would be passed in the state.

The researchers determined that the 40 percent of mandated-labeled foods transcribes into 21,000 – 25,000 separate labeled items, or 50-58 percent of items available in supermarkets. The labeling costs involve labeling itself, the annual costs of warehousing more items as well as the charges leveled for stocking ‘new’ items by supermarkets. Based purely on those costs alone, the researchers estimate that annual costs for a “family of four range from $64-68, with a midpoint of $66.”

That doesn’t seem quite in the $500 range, but then the researchers go on to analyze the more complex scenario: what happens when food companies decide to replace the GM ingredients with non-GM ingredients. Non-GM ingredients are more costly, and now the GM and non-GM products must be kept separate in the supply chain. The researchers summarize the results of their calculations as follows:

  •  The estimated costs now, again for a family of four, range from a low of $44 to a high of $412, with a midpoint of $228.
  •  The costs for using organic ingredients are respectively $360 to $1,552 with the midpoint at $956.
  • Additional costs to the State include the potential loss of net farmer income from producing GM corn and soybeans, which while very real for State farmers is minor compared to direct consumer costs.
  • There are additionally regulatory costs which are borne by the State. Adding one dollar per capita for all those costs brings the maximum range of cost, for the four-person household, to $48 to $1,556 with a midpoint of $800.

Ironically, because of legal issues a sizable portion of the costs of labeling would fall on food producers who do not want GM ingredients in their foods. The debate over this issue and this study ignores other costs that could add hundreds of dollars or more to each person’s yearly food bill: the potential for tort litigation if products are found to exceed whatever threshold is legally established for trace existence of GM ingredients. Any food that does not have a GM label but is found to have a trace amount above the arbitrary cutoff point set in legislation will undoubtedly be hit by a law suit. That could result in hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in legal defense costs or adverse judgements.

So I am getting it. Mandatory food labeling would cost the farmer, the food companies, the state and myself more money, each year, per food item. But is that such a bad thing? I’d theoretically be paying for freedom, the freedom to choose what I ate, the ‘right to know’ what is in my food—that phrase is still so appealing.

Personally, I have nothing against GMO foods: more than one hundred major scientific societies have come out and said they are safe, I believe they are safe and I don’t see how else we can protect the world’s burgeoning population from food shortages in the decades ahead. I also can see the problems that labeling might pose the GMO food revolution. If many shoppers avoid GMO foods then over time they’ll disappear, and the forward trajectory of GMO technology could be seriously hampered.

But these dire predictions wouldn’t necessarily mean that I am opposed to mandatory labeling of GMO foods. I bristle when I hear arguments that if we label GMO foods, customers will change their behavior and not buy them, so don’t label the foods. Such arguments are patronizing and undermining of customer intelligence, assuming that policymakers know what is best for us and we are not clever enough to work out the consequences for ourselves.

So am I now saying that, given the chance to vote, I would have voted for mandatory labeling of GMO foods? No, I am not. Because when my choices affect the freedom of others I have to consider them in a wider context. I like the idea of the ‘right to know,’ I really do. But having read these studies, and other articles in my investigation, I realize that my ‘right to know’ might affect someone else’s ‘right to choose’, or even worse their ‘right to eat.’

Look at the current situation: a menu of options exists for any of us when we make a food choice. We can choose between conventional unlabeled goods, organic foods and voluntarily labeled GMO-free foods. So, if we are prepared to pay a little more, we can choose GMO-free foods by choosing organic or GMO-free foods. Another consumer can choose cheaper options by choosing unlabeled, non-organic foods. But slap on mandatory labels and those cheaper options disappear. Even worse, if the same scenarios play out in the U.S. that have unfolded in Europe where labeling is mandatory, some products would disappear altogether—mostly the cheaper ones.

Close to home, plenty of families in America would suffer from soaring food costs because they won’t have the choice of cheaper, but still safe and healthy, food. Further afield developing nations wouldn’t be able to sell their crops to the U.S. if they were grown using GMO technology.

So in investigating for this piece, I exercised my ‘right to know’ by analyzing publically available documents. I believe that the ‘right to know’ as it refers to the mandatory GMO labeling of food is not something that I want on my conscience.

Jane Palmer is Gene-ius editor for the Genetic Literacy Project and a freelance science writer and radio journalist based near Boulder, Colorado. Follow Jane Palmer on @JanePalmerComms.

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  • Thetallbrow

    So, let’s get this straight. You mean to tell me that simply because something is labeled, the way we label most things (perhaps it’s hydrognized, made from concentrated, etc) that people would avoid it? I think you’re forgetting about the millions of things that are dangerous in our products that people don’t about, let alone even look for. Second, the idea that companies would start selling organic food to replace GMO food is also a wild assumption. There are traditional, non-organic foods which don’t cost nearly as much and if they did make organic, investment in the product and it’s production could bring the price down as demand went up and organics are made more available. As for farming and warehousing, the farmers knows what, or is not GMO. They signed a contract to plant them in the first place. So the farmer can tell the manufacturer and the manufacturer does not need to seperate, they just needs to pass on the information. Such wild assumptions based on poor science and assumptive claims.

    • Keoki

      I guess you haven’t been following the claims of the most virulent anti-gmo activists

      http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2014/05/needs-author-account-vermonts-gmo-labeling-law-what-it-really-means-for-consumers/

      “We are going to force them to label this food. If we have it labeled, then we can organize people not to buy it.” – Andrew Kimbrell of the wrongly named “Center for Food Safety”

      “By avoiding GMOs, you contribute to the tipping point of consumer rejection, forcing them out of our food supply.” – Jeffrey Smith, (another wrongly named) Institute for Responsible Technology

      “The burning question for all of us then becomes how – and how quickly – can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2 percent market niche to the dominant force in American food and farming? The first step is to change our labeling laws.” – Ronnie Cummins, Organic Consumers Association

      “Personally, I believe GM foods must be banned entirely, but labeling is the most efficient way to achieve this. Since 85 percent of the public will refuse to buy foods they know to be genetically modified, this will effectively eliminate them from the market just the way it was done in Europe” – Dr. Joseph Mercola pushing bad polling numbers and the class Lemming argument.

      Now, we have claims from the leading anti-gmo activists showing the REASONS behind the labeling laws: to make GMO seem like they are BAD and make it EASIER for them to GET rid of them completely. We even have a statement by a ORGANIC industry rep, that its all about growing ORGANIC’s market share (thereby making food more expensive and of course making more money for the industry)

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Bingo and thank you. To the author. There is a large segment of our population that is to ignorant to make educated decisions. Just look at election results and read the comments from anti-g.e. folks.

      • adam

        So allowing consumers to make informed purchases is a bad thing? Or is a small businessman (the organic farmer) trying to make more money with a premium product a bad thing? Is legally protecting a food source near-monopoly (Monsanto seeds) a good thing?

    • Keoki

      “There are traditional, non-organic foods which don’t cost nearly as much and if they did make organic,’

      and GM crops can cost less to grow than convention (non-organic) crops.

    • heavenpiercingman

      The rest of the labeled items haven’t had such a fearmongering campaign upon them.

      • adam

        So you are denying me my right to be a part of the capitalist system by refusing me the information I need to spend my money only on companies I want to support. You can say that my being informed is a case of fear mongering, but what gives you or anyone else the right to deny me information because you KNOW that I don’t want to buy a certain type of product?

        • crops

          So, adam, tell us then: IF foods were labeled as produced with GE, would you or would you not avoid them? C’mon, be honest. Would you be affected (and frightened) and avoid them? Can you tell us what choices YOU would do if you saw foods labeled as GE?

          • adam

            I already give STRONG purchase preference to organic foods and foods labeled with as non-gmo. Making an informed decision isn’t a matter of being frightened.

        • Jason

          So, you’re saying that we should pass a law that effects everyone so that you may better hold your grudges against certain companies? What possible justification can you gave for such a law? You have no more right to know everything about someone else’s product than they have to know everything about you. If you feel you need more information to make the kinds of decisions that you want to make, then it’s incimbent on you to go get that information OR cater to those products that label to your satisfaction. It’s not your right to go crying to the govt claiming that the big bad companies arent giving me everything I want.

          • adam

            If I am going to buy it then it would become MY product , so YES I should be able to get all the information I need on it prior to my purchase. How else are market forces supposed to work?

          • Jason

            Market forces work when you make a concsious decision to buy products that provide you with the information you want and avoid purchasing those that do not. Period. They do not work when all producers are forced to provide the exact same thing.

            You hinted at the correct answer… IF you are going to buy it. The “IF” should be determined by whether or not the product meets your needs. If the product does not meet your needs (i.e. It doesn’t provide you enough information on ingredient production methods) then you don’t buy it. Easy, peasy!

    • farmboy

      Uh, you are very wrong about that. The farmer has to separate the crops in the field. Many farmers, esp. in Colorado, grow BOTH GE and non-GE crops. Yup, you read that right. So they wouldn’t have been able to use their same harvesting equipment with the 0% tolerance standard in Colorado’s poorly-drafted labeling measure. (How can they get to that 0% standard? Your toothbrush, maybe?)
      The shipping from farm to processor would have to be 100% separate. Ditto with the storage.
      What you need to do is talk to a farmer who grows GE (and non-GE) crops and find out how it’s done, rather than making up fantasy.
      You have a right to your opinions, but you don’t have a right to make up your own facts.

      • adam

        Or perhaps farmers could simply plant their crops into GE and non-GE fields next year. Ooooh so difficult! Such a burden. It’s not that hard to keep track of what kind of seed is being planted.

        • Farmer Sue

          Adam, you obviously have never talked to a farmer. “Simply” doing what you suggest ignores two points, already pointed out to you. One: Farmers rotate crops in their fields. They don’t have “GE fieldsd” and “non-GE fields”. What may be genetically modified sugar beets one year may be conventional wheat the next. Ever hear of crop rotation? Guess not.
          Two: The Colorado initiative would have required labeling for ANY food that had ANY percent gmo crops. 100%. Did you read the comment above about combines and harvesting? Do you not realize that a farmer doesn’t necessarily have a different combine or harvester for every crop? That initiative would have been hugely expensive for farmers, with that 100% separation requirement.
          So yes, your sarcastic “so difficult, such a burden” is actually correct.
          Don’t let yourself continue to be such an uninformed igoramus spouting nonsense. Talk to a farmer.

  • adam

    1) What about the increased health care costs of consuming RoundUp pesticide in every meal? GMO foods are by vast majority RoundUp-Ready, and all of those crops are sprayed with that particularly pernicious pesticide.

    2) As a capitalist, I want to be able to choose to not support agribusinesses that are damaging the environment. Without GMO labeling I am being denied my right to be a part of the free market forces.

    • Sterling Ericsson

      Rather than the health costs of consuming Rotenone and copper sulfate in every organic meal, both of which are many times more toxic than Roundup? Interesting how the organic companies never bring that up.

      • lajaw

        Rotenone is no longer allowed in US organic production and, conventional farmers also use copper sulfate on crops and on soils.

        • Sterling Ericsson

          Rotenone was never banned and is indeed still used in organic farming. And copper sulfate usage in other kinds of farming doesn’t mean much. It is highly toxic and causes heavy metal poisoning of the soil. Then you have pyrethrins, spinosad, and many others.

          • nina nonarchi

            I’d love to hear the organic activists (same guys as anti-gmo) give reasons why their food shouldn’t be labeled for this toxic organic stuff.

            I’d also love to hear these anti-gmo foodies give me a reason why Whole Foods, so superior in its attitude, doesn’t acknowledge that its cheese is GE (like most cheese). And cheese wouldn’t even have been labeled, if this incoherent measure had passed.

          • lajaw

            Wrong. Because the EPA is the governing regulatory agency for its legal sale
            and distribution in the United States, and it is no longer registered
            for uses other than for fish kill, it is not available for purchase by
            an organic producer in this country.

            Nothing wrong with pyrethrins if used right, they are used in conventional ag too. Many dairies use it for fly control.

          • lajaw

            As I stated above, Rotenone is no longer allowed in US organic production. Why? Because the EPA is the governing regulatory agency for its legal sale and distribution in the U.S., and it is no longer registered for uses other than for fish kill, it is not available for purchase by an organic producer in this country. If you don’t know, why do you comment?

          • First Officer

            http://csanr.cahnrs.wsu.edu/m2m/files/Rotenone_Final_2014_02_27.pdf

            Indeed, except for existing stocks of rotenone. However, it is still allowed in Organic production where it is legal to do so. Hence, imported organic food may still have it.

    • hyperzombie

      GMO foods are by vast majority RoundUp-Ready, and all of those crops are sprayed with that particularly pernicious pesticide.

      Well, no. The most popular GMO trait is Bt, not Roundup Ready. A lot of non GMO crops are also sprayed with Roundup, so what you really want is a “sprayed with Roundup” label, not a GMO label.

      As a capitalist, I want to be able to choose to not support agribusinesses that are damaging the environment.

      A GMO label will not give you this information.

    • agsciencelogic

      In Colorado, the labeling measure wouldn’t have told you what GE ingredients you were eating, like other labeling countries do. Just a “produced by genetic engineering” statement that says nothing. Well, big whoop. You wouldn’t learn anything with the label the way the Colorado initiative was drafted.
      You have the “right” to be part of the free market; buy organic or non-gmo. Vote with your fork.c

    • agsciencelogic

      1) Nope.
      2) As a capitalist, you have a right to be anti-corporate and to make erroneous conclusions about just who is “damaging the environment.”
      But when you’re wrong (as you clearly are), you don’t have the “right” to foister your erroneous conclusions on me and on my pocketbook. Just eat organic.

  • Coloradofood

    Thanks to the author for this great article. She correctly summarizes the many, many negative consequences of “forced” labeling the way the measure in Colorado was drafted. Many people I talked to felt like she did, and they did vote “no” after finding out more facts behind the hype of “don’t you just wanna know” sham by the anti-gmo activists behind this bill.