Writing  in The Hill on October 14, Professor Elizabeth Glass Geltman called for expanded federal and state labeling requirements for food products containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). She justifies her position in part by claiming that more than 60 countries currently require GMO labeling.  The professor also suggests that mandatory GMO labeling is necessary to ensure that consumers have access to accurate and understandable information. 

Well, many of those 60 countries, by instituting mandatory GMO labeling, also missed out on the agricultural revolution that has occurred over the last 20 years, a revolution ushered in by GM technology.  To this day, the agricultural outputs of those same countries are suffering the ill effects of their decision to stigmatize GMOs and discourage the use of this new tool of modern agriculture.  Unfortunately, many of these countries allowed their food labeling policies to be based on politics rather than sound science.   

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However, today there are encouraging signs, particularly in the EU, that the tides are shifting.  More and more thought leaders are calling on officials to abandon their restrictive policies on GMOs.  Just recently, more than twenty of Europe's leading plant scientists signed a joint letter warning that Europe will never meet agricultural targets unless it starts allowing GM crops.  In addition, Owen Patterson, the UK’s former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, cautioned earlier this year that "Europe risks becoming the museum of world farming as innovative companies make decisions to invest and develop new technologies in other markets.” 

Here in the U.S. our marketplace relies heavily on GM technology and its benefits to modern agriculture.  Approximately 70-80% of the packaged food products in the U.S. contain GM ingredients because the vast majority of corn, soy and sugar beets grown here in the U.S. are produced from GMOs.   

Mandatory GMO labeling measures, such as those that were recently voted down in Oregon and Colorado, would impact literally thousands of food products on the market today.  While those ballot measures were not successful, anti-GMO activists will continue to push for a messy, state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws that will result in massive disruptions to the supply chain.  The differing state and local labeling standards could require separate supply chains to be developed for various states and municipalities – potentially crippling interstate commerce throughout the food supply and distribution chain. What constitutes a GMO further muddies the waters and threatens to confuse consumers. Technologies and products rapidly change; tomorrow’s products may not be captured by yesterday’s unscientific laws.  

Professor Geltman also suggested that mandatory GMO labeling is needed to help ensure that consumers are getting “accurate information” so they can “understand” what they are eating.  Unfortunately, state-by-state labeling measures only serve to mislead and misinform consumers.  For example, the Oregon proposal would have exempted nearly two thirds of foods from a mandatory labeling requirement, including restaurant and cafeteria food, alcoholic beverages, meats and dairy products.  Similarly, the Colorado measure would not have covered approximately two-thirds of food expenditures and processing aides, such as the enzymes used to make cheese. In other words, if both ballot measures would have passed, a food considered a GMO in Oregon might have been considered GMO-free in Colorado. How does that help inform consumers or provide accurate information?  Consumers do have a right to know what they’re eating. That’s not what this debate is really about because for those that want to avoid GMO’s for whatever reason, those choices exist in organic and certified non-GMO products.  Those who choose to avoid GMOs can easily do so by voluntarily paying for the extra cost of GMO-free products. 

Equally alarming as the misinformation and disruptions to interstate commerce caused by these types of patchwork labeling laws are the potential impacts these state laws will have on consumer grocery bills.  According to a recent study by Cornell University, grocery costs for the average New York State family could increase by an average of $500 per year if it were to adopt a mandatory labeling law.  Likewise, a Washington State Academy of Sciences study found that mandatory labeling would impose new direct and indirect costs on grocery prices as they move down the supply chain.  Those costs, the study found, would be passed on to all consumers resulting in higher food prices for all, the great majority of whom are not asking for GMO labeling.  

A disruptive state-by-state patchwork of misinformation would be a disservice to consumers.  It’s imperative that Congress address this issue at a national level.

Chassy is professor emeritus, Dept. of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.