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Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods—Let’s Count the Reasons (Part 1)

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As several recent articles, such as by Daniel Imhoff and Michael Dimrock, have clearly articulated, the most compelling reason to support labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods is simply the right to know and control what we put into our bodies. We should not have to provide reasons or justifications to food companies, politicians, or scientists for our personal choices.

From an economic perspective, a properly functioning market-based system — the kind that companies love to tout when it suits their purposes — depends on the free flow of information. We seem to have no problem supporting choice for everything from cars to smart phones, but it seems that despite polls that consistently show that over 90 percent of our fellow citizens want labeling of GE foods, the companies and their supporters think that democratic choice should not extend to what we eat.

What about the cost of food?

Monsanto, DuPont, and the big food companies that are pouring big money into scaring consumers to vote against proposition 37 in California, know from surveys that their best argument is to convince voters that their food will become much more expensive if labeling goes forward. But let’s look at this claim more closely.

The cost of changing labels is trivial. It can be done at virtually no cost over time.

The cost of reformulating should also be minimal, because non-GE sources could be substituted for GE corn and soy and their products like corn starch, soy lecithin, and so on. This is different than where new types of ingredients, that may have different taste or texture, are substituted for previous ingredients.

However, substituting non-GE ingredients such as non-GE corn or corn starch for GE versions does impose a cost on food producers. Probably the main cost for labeling would be in segregating of GE from non-GE crops and food, and testing for GE contamination of non-GE food. This may be passed on to consumers.

But segregation or testing would not be needed for the large majority of corn and soy, which is used for livestock feed and ethanol production — now accounting for about 40 percent of our corn crop — because these uses are exempted by schemes like proposition 37 in California, or labeling in Europe. So probably no impact on the price of meat and milk would result from labeling.

That leaves the corn, soy, and canola and their byproducts that are used in our food. But the cost of these ingredients in processed foods, which make up the large majority of products that contain GE, is only a small fraction of the cost that consumers pay. Most of the retail price represents packaging, processing, advertising, transportation, profit, and other costs. For example, according to USDA, the corn in an 18-ounce box of cornflakes contributed only 4.9 cents to the price in 2007, during high corn prices. This was up from a 3.3 cent average for previous years — or a 1.6 cent increase per box — despite corn prices that had risen by about 50 percent. This amounted to only half a percent increase in the price of cornflakes at the time.

And GE ingredients make up a much smaller percentage of most processed foods. So for most of those foods, even if the cost of GE ingredients doubled — way more than is likely — the cost increase to consumers is likely a few percent or less.

You wouldn’t know it from the stink that opponents of GE labeling are making.

Tomorrow: Labeling and GE health and environmental risk.

Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons, Fir0002/Flagstaffphotos

Posted in: Food and Agriculture Tags: , ,

About the author: Doug Gurian-Sherman is a widely-cited expert on biotechnology and sustainable agriculture. He holds a Ph.D. in plant pathology. See Doug's full bio.

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One Response

  1. Carol R. says:

    “The right to know” nothing, the right to believe anything, a passion to control everything. That’s your argument in a nutshell. No thanks. Go waste someone else’s time and resources with your silly orthorexia.