The Fight Over GMO Labeling
Much has changed in the agricultural marketplace since Flavr Savr, the first genetically engineered tomato, first appeared in America's supermarkets in 1994. The Department of Agriculture reports that in 2014, 94 percent of soybean acreage, 89 percent of corn acreage, and 84 percent of cotton acreage in the U.S. comprise genetically engineered, insect-resistant crops. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry group representing over 300 major food, beverage, and consumer-product companies, estimates that 70 to 80 percent of processed food consumed by Americans contains plants that have been genetically engineered.
While critics continue to question the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products, the scientific evidence for GMO foods has been evaluated by the European Union, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, Health Canada, and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, among others. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world's largest general scientific society, reports that these established organizations have all come to the same conclusion: "Consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques."
In recent years, anti-GMO activists have re-focused their public-policy lobbying and advocacy efforts from health and safety concerns to emphasizing enhanced transparency of food ingredient information. Advocates of mandatory labeling argue that American consumers have a right to know what specific ingredients are in their processed foods. Furthermore, they emphasize consumer choice, as consumers with ethical or religious concerns have the right to decide what ingredients they ingest.
Pro-GMO advocates cite both cost and choice problems with mandatory-labeling edicts. A 2014 Cornell University study concludes that New York's proposed labeling bill would cost families in the state an average of $500 per year; earlier studies in Washington State and California reached similar conclusions. Also, previous experiences with mandatory labeling in the European Union, Japan, and New Zealand have resulted in grocery retailers' eliminating GMO food products from their shelves, largely due to consumer aversion to these products after mandatory labeling requirements were implemented.
Over the last 25 years, a majority of American-consumer surveys on GMO foods reveal that more than 90 percent want GMO retail food labels to be mandatory. However, Americans' opinions about GMO labels depend on their beliefs about GMO foods, their actual knowledge and awareness of GMO foods, and the inferences they draw from these labels.
According to William Hallman, director of the Food Policy Institute (FPI) at Rutgers University, when the FPI undertook a major survey of American consumer attitudes toward GMO foods in November 2013, asking what information should be included on food labels that is not already there, only 7 percent of survey respondents mentioned GMO ingredients. When presented with a list of possible information to include on retail food labels, 59 percent of survey respondents included GMO ingredients. When asked specifically whether GMO ingredients should be labeled, 73 percent of survey respondents said yes. Obviously, the response is dependent on how you word the question.
At the federal level, anti-GMO lobbying and advocacy efforts to mandate labeling in the past 15 years have had no substantive effect on the status quo. Recently, however, anti-GMO public-policy efforts have made progress at the state level. On May 9 of this year, Vermont became the first state to mandate the retail labeling, effective July 1, 2016, of certain foods containing GMOs. Unlike Connecticut and Maine, whose legislatures passed labeling laws last year, the Vermont legislature did not include any "trigger" provision making the law contingent upon other state governments' requiring GMO labeling.
Anti-GMO interest groups have also introduced state ballot initiatives mandating GMO labeling. In November 2012, California's Proposition 37 was narrowly defeated, and in another closely contested vote, Washington State's Initiative 522 was defeated in November 2013. This year, the State of Colorado has Proposition 105 on the ballot, and Oregon has Initiative 44.
Recent anti-GMO state-level success has elicited a federal legislative response supported by the pro-GMO food lobby. U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.) recently introduced H.R. 4432 ("Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act"), which amends the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The bill authorizes the FDA to require labels disclosing material differences (but not all differences) between GMO and non-GMO food. The bill also preempts any state or local government requirement concerning GMO food labeling and establishes standards for any label claiming that bioengineering was or was not used in the production of the food.
While H.R. 4432 is sequestered in the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Health and not likely to emerge in the 113th Congress, the 114th Congress will likely see a reintroduction of this or similar legislation. Also, on June 12, 2014, a coalition of pro-GMO food and manufacturing associations, led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, filed suit in the District of Vermont court challenging on constitutional grounds the state's labeling law. If Republicans gain control of Congress in November, and if Vermont's law isn't struck down, passage of this legislation could prevent a costly patchwork of state level regulatory compliance from emerging.
Thomas A. Hemphill is an associate professor of strategy, innovation, and public policy in the University of Michigan-Flint School of Management, and Syagnik Banerjee is associate professor of marketing and digital media in the University of Michigan-Flint School of Management.