The debate over labeling food with genetically modified ingredients is back for a return engagement in Oregon. Twelve years ago, Oregonians rejected a ballot measure on GMO labels. This year, the push is on to put another measure on the fall ballot doing the same thing.
Much of the debate will focus on consumers and whether labels would make food cost more. Representatives of high-end grocery stores like Whole Foods say prices would remain the same. At the same time, the grocery chain is already starting to label the GMO foods it sells without help from the government, calling into question the need for a government mandate.
Others in the food industry disagree. The Grocery Manufacturers Association says a patchwork of state GMO label laws would increase the average family’s food bill about $400 a year.
But the people who will bear much of the cost of any GMO label law are those behind the scenes. The association’s study estimated that in California alone a GMO label law would cost food producers $1.2 billion a year. Seed producers, farmers, grain elevators and handlers, processors and retailers all would be forced either to charge more for their products or absorb the costs, according to a report by the Washington State Academy of Sciences released last fall.
According to the report, actions that would be included in a mandatory GMO label law include:
• Testing systems and supporting paper trails.
• Product and production documentation.
• Separate harvesting or cleaning harvest equipment when switching crops.
• Separate storage, handling and transportation systems, or cleaning them for different crops.
• Different contracting arrangements.
• Separate processing lines and cleaning the systems when switching from GMO to non-GMO crops.
• Inventory management systems would need to be changed.
• Create and manage new SKUs, the computerized tracking labels used in the food industry.
• Create or modify labels.
• Additional shelf and storage space.
• Liability insurance.
Our fear is that farmers will be caught in the middle of the GMO label debate. Because farmers are price-takers, they would have higher costs but the prices they receive will remain the same. If they switch to non-GMO crops, another set of expenses, including the cost of more pesticides, will come into play. Subtract from that the lower yields non-GMO crops produce.
Modern agriculture is about efficient production of healthful food. It is startling to the unbiased observer that so much time, effort and money is being spent on an effort to label food that is fundamentally the same, costs more and will hurt farmers.