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Nature Biotech Comes Out Against the Mandatory Labeling of GMOs

December 19, 2014
Nature Biotechnology recently published an editorial piece that looks at how the mandatory labeling of GM foods in the United States will not only make all food more costly but also create unnecessary confusion for customers. The piece identifies cost as the foremost problem when it comes to the mandatory labeling of GM foods. Many assume that mandatory labeling just means printing more detailed labels but it in fact it's much more than that and can mean that additional costs will be placed on the consumer.
"Establishing and enforcing a labeling system for staple crops is not just about printing more detailed labels. GM and non-GM foods would need segregation from planting to plating, necessitating intense audits and constant policing to maintain the apartheid during harvesting, transportation, storage, processing and distribution.

"This is a much more daunting proposition than the USDA's organic program which handles only ~4% of US foods. The cost of personnel and systems for certification/testing and compliance/enforcement was estimated by the state of Washington at $22.5 million annually, just for governmental supervision for its own territory; Oregon, with half Washington's population, estimated $11.3 million. Extrapolated nationally, the price for government supervision of labeling could approach a billion dollars. Not to mention the much larger costs for the food and feed industries, and farmers.

"Consumers, ultimately, pay the price. Some studies estimate a hike in retail food prices as high as 10%, not a disaster for those who already buy premium products to 'avoid' GM food at organic or 'non-GMO' supermarkets, but a budget-breaker for the large number of Americans struggling to meet weekly food bills."

This piece rightly refutes the argument that mandatory labeling gives the consumer greater choice in the marketplace:

"Proponents of mandatory labels for genetically modified (GM) food in the United States claim to be motivated by the interests of the consumer. They argue that labeling all foods as 'may contain GMO' or 'GMO-free' would help consumers understand what they eat. GM labels, they say, would also give greater choice, allowing consumers to avoid GM products.

"In reality, though, the campaigns to introduce labeling legislation in US state legislatures are not about consumer choice or information. Labels are veiled attempts to stigmatize GM food and its producers, based on an ideological repugnance for genetic engineering. They are designed to scare mainstream consumers away from GM products. Simply put, labeling proponents are GM food opponents. And this is a scheme to purge GM products from the US market.

"GM food labeling is not mandatory in the United States. Instead, the country has a rather ad hocvoluntary labeling system. Many thousands of foods labeled 'GM-free' or 'non-GM foods' can be bought in US grocery stores like Whole Foods Markets or Walmart. The labels are not governed by any consistent standards; thus, they are devoid not only of scientific meaning but also of significance."

At least 25 states have considered labeling initiatives but most have not passed...However, the pro-labelers have had successes. Last year, both Connecticut and Maine passed bills requiring GM labels. And in May, Vermont signed into law bill H.112:

"The legislation in Vermont, a dairy state, illustrates the incoherence and self-interest of the motives behind labeling. Vermont's law exempts from GM labeling milk from cows fed GM feed or 'vegetarian' cheese prepared using recombinant chymosin. But it requires labels if foods contain oil or sugar from GM crops, even though no transgene or exogenous protein is detectable in those ingredients, and their chemical composition is identical to those from conventional crops. Perhaps Vermont's legislators should consider 'may contain' labels for radioisotopes, mercury, cadmium, bird feces, microbial poisons and explosives—ingredients that are present in all foods, albeit at undetectable levels."

One last interesting point that the editorial discusses is the mandatory GMO labeling laws that exists in Europe and abroad. GM food labeling is mandatory in 64 other countries which is largely due to the "European Union's decision to promulgate non-science based regulation."...The former, most draconian system, is enforced in Europe. Almost as soon as Europe's mandatory GM food labeling scheme came in, GM products disappeared from supermarket shelves. "Fearful of stigma, liability and bad PR, retailers pressured their supply chain to move to non-GM ingredients."

Read Label Without a Cause in its entirety.