Last week, the Senate passed the bipartisan Roberts-Stebenow bill allowing food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled using so-called "smart labels" — QR (Quick Response) codes that lead to full information on contents. Thursday, the House of Representatives will consider the measure. Critics have decried the measure as the Denying Americans Right to Know (DARK) act because it would not require food packages to declare GMO contents. The DARK moniker is as misleading as the GMO labels these activists have advocated for. Instead, we believe the proposed approach to be illuminating, and one the House should support in light of flawed state requirements.
As the House takes up the bill, we hope our representatives do not lose sight of the positive impact that GMO foods have on the environment and the poor. Since GMO crops have become widespread, the U.S. has seen environmental benefits from weed and pest resistant GMO-crops. For instance, the amount of chemicals used to kill weeds has declined by nearly 37 percent. Furthermore, since farmers do not have to till the soil as much to kill weeds, soil erosion has declined substantially. Fewer chemicals in our atmosphere, and soil staying on farm fields instead of washing into streams and lakes, means widespread benefits for all of us that use waterways recreationally, consume seafood or drink water.
The impact of GMOs on the poor is also important. Approximately one out of every nine people in the world is malnourished, according to the World Food Programme. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture counts approximately one out of every seven people as food insecure. How can we feed these people in need of food today and ultimately meet the needs of a global population that is headed toward 9 billion? A key element of this solution lies in the process that has enabled us to feed the world's population as it grew from 1 billion to 7 billion over the past 165 years: the integration of science in agriculture.
In the face of so much potential, there have been vocal calls by anti-GMO activists for mandatory labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods. Specifically, these activists want labels appearing on the front of food packages, as is required under Vermont law. This kind of warning-type label is designed to provide just enough information to scare the uninformed, and is not based on any sound science. The Roberts-Stabenow bill wisely puts into policy the recent recommendations of behavioral economics research summarized in a CAST Issue Paper written by Kent Messer of the University of Delaware, Harry Kaiser of Cornell University (and a co-author of this piece), Marco Costanigro of Colorado State University and Shawna Bligh. These researchers showed that using warning-type labels that have phrase like "contains" or "free of" implicitly casts rival products in a negative light and leads consumers to stigmatize and shun these product even when there is no evidence of them doing harm to human health.
The mandatory labeling of GM food using warning type labels would undermine progress we’ve made and ultimately hurt the environment and the poor. Certainly, new technologies and foods need to go through a period of testing for safety. However, after a reasonable amount of time and testing, these products should become available to feed a growing population as long as the scientific consensus shows that they are safe.
Smoking is dangerous and drinking while pregnant is too, thus labeling for safety makes sense. Mandatory labeling of foods that contained trans fats made sense when science showed they harmed human health. The current scientific consensus is that GMOs currently on the market do not harm human health. Mandatory labeling is not an appropriate policy response — and, indeed, can convey misinformation if interpreted as a warning.
As consumers shun safe products due to labeling, it undermines the incentives for agricultural companies to invest in science and new product development. In turn, this will slow the growth of science in agriculture and the development of a more abundant food supply to help feed the poor in the U.S. and the world. Genetic engineering offers many other promising environmental benefits that can help us address a variety of environmental problems, including rampant water pollution due to agricultural practices.
The benefits accruing from applying science and technology to the food system make up a major part of the reason why the human population was able to increase dramatically while the percentage of people who are malnourished has decreased, all without a significant growth in the number of acres of cropland under cultivation. For instance, average corn grain yields in the U.S. have increased by nearly 700 percent since the 1860s, and once-common syndromes associated with poor diets (such as scurvy and pellagra) have virtually disappeared from developed countries.
In essence, front-of-package labels would obfuscate the great benefits we derive from GMOs and represent a setback in terms of technological innovation, environmental protection and the fight against hunger. The Roberts-Stabenow approach allows food be labeled to enable consumers to know more about their food and where it comes from, and also enables producers to develop new products to secure the higher prices that these consumers are willing to pay. Consumers can learn not just whether GMOs are present or not, but why they are included and what benefit the GMO provides. Using new technology can help consumers identify the ingredients in their food, the production processes used and why it makes a difference. Indeed, labeling of food processes in this way can help people know more about what they eat while ensuring that conditions are ripe to help the environment and feed the poor in the generations ahead. In fact, it is quite an illuminating approach.
Just and Kaiser are both professors in Cornell University's Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, part of the College of Business. Just is a professor of behavioral economics who has testified on Capitol Hill about agricultural biotechnology and engaged with the media on the need to avoid injecting unnecessary alarm into GMO labeling efforts. He will help instruct a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) this fall on "Science and the Politics of the GMO." Kaiser teaches and conducts research in the areas of price analysis, marketing and quantitative methods. He is the director of the Cornell Commodity Promotion Research Program, focusing on the market-wide economic effects of commodity advertising and promotion programs. Kaiser conducted some of the first research investigating the economic impacts of climate change on the U.S. agricultural sector.