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Would GMO Labeling REALLY Make Food More Expensive?

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As of now, it looks as though Washington’s I-522 GMO labeling initiative is failing.

One core argument from opponents of I-522 centered on the premise that GMO labeling would make food more expensive. Assuming this was one of the primary reasons the initiative is failing, let’s examine this issue a bit deeper. I-522’s opponents of GMO labeling posited that the labels would make food more expensive.  In a statement regarding I-522, Mike LaPlant, president of the Washington State Farm Bureau states: “I-522 would force Washington farmers and food companies to implement costly new labeling, packaging, distribution and record-keeping requirements…”

The “Vote No on 522” web site, the official online source for opponents of the initiative, makes claims that the initiative would, “force farmers and food producers to implement costly new labeling, packaging, distribution and record keeping operations or switch to higher priced, specially handled, non-GE ingredients in order to sell food in Washington state.”

According to research provided by the Washington Research Council via an editorial by the Tri-City Herald, “[The price to label GMO foods would be] between $200 and $520 a year for a family of four from 2015-19. After 2019, the cost would be more than $450 a year.” The editorial called the initiative “costly and burdensome.” Another editorial in Washington state, via the editorial board of The Wenatchee World, states that GMO labeling would cost “…millions in regulatory expense for farmers and government.” Another editorial from the Capital Press states that “If the cost of segregating GMO and non-GMO ingredients and printing special labels for food sold in Washington state were considered, the costs would be even greater.”

Now, consider this in light of these editorials: According to a recent article in Mother Jones, we should consider whether or not these editorial boards may have a vested interest in supporting opponents of GMO labeling in Washington state. “As in California, the effect on food prices is emerging as a point of contention. Opponents of labeling, pointing to a 2012 study prepared during the California fight by Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants, say that the new rules would cost consumers $350 to $400 annually per household. The Northbridge paper, though, was funded by the industry-dominated campaign to stop Prop 37, as the California initiative was known. Campaign records show that Northridge received a total of $97,371 in five payments during 2012.”

Now, with this in mind, let’s consider the arguments that were made by those in favor of GMO labeling in Washington state. The “Yes on 522” site explains: “Contrary to the opposition’s claims, label updates are a routine part of business for the food industry and should not result in additional costs to shoppers. For example, Food companies re-label soda cans and cereal boxes all the time and it doesn’t affect cost. We already include labels for sugar and fat content, ingredients and numerous other things, so there would be no cost in labeling genetically engineered foods. Labeling genetically engineered foods is about transparency and empowering shoppers.” And how about all of those special promotions run by companies? With every new celebrity picture, children’s game, holiday promotion, or anything else for that matter, corporations make changes to labels all of the time. Does this result in substantially higher prices for consumers?

Arran Stephens, the founder of Nature’s Path, states: “We, as with most manufacturers, are continually updating our packaging. It is a regular cost of doing business – a small one at that – and is already built into our cost structure. Claims that labeling GMOs would significantly increase the price of food for consumers just aren’t true. Companies would certainly be updating their packaging for other reasons within the 18 months they will be given to comply with the new law, and could simply make the additional GMO labeling changes at the same time.”

Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry’s co-founder, states: “This can be done. It won’t materially affect the company’s profit margins.” Along with Ben Cohen, the other founder of Ben & Jerry’s, Greenfield has continually voiced support of GMO labeling.

Further, a 2012 study by Joanna M. Shepherd-Bailey of Emory University School of Law, found that “food prices [are] likely to remain unchanged for consumers.”

And according to Michael Lipsky, a senior fellow at a think tank called Demos, the real cost of label modification would be minor, as corporations “do it all the time.” Lipsky claims that the real costs corporations fear has more to do with the costs involved with avoiding having to label, the fact that a product contains GMOs: “The claim that food costs would rise is partly based upon a commissioned study by Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants. The Northbridge report concluded that costs would rise because food manufacturers would choose to substitute non-GMO ingredients for the GMO foods they currently use. Or they would reformulate their foods to avoid GMO products, resulting in increased food costs.”

Even still, the impact of these costs wouldn’t last very long. “If labeling were required, particularly if (and when) the labeling requirement is adopted by other states, demand for non-GMO versions of corn, soybeans, and sugar beets—the basic GMO crops—would increase, production would expand, and prices for non-GMO ingredients would decline,” Lipsky states.

So, there is a lot of confusing information surrounding the question as to whether or not GMO labeling would cost consumers more money, but one thing is clear: If labeling is required, it would likely balance itself out to a food supply with a whole lot less GMO ingredients: and isn’t that a win for everyone?

While it looks as though I-522 may not pass, the war is definitely not over. A similar initiative is being planned in Oregon for 2014, and other calls for labeling may surface in your own state soon. Please consider these points about the arguments made that costs would increase when the time comes for you to decide.

Image Source: theeerin/Flickr

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