Commentary: Why all the fuss over GMO labeling? (Dave Ladd, RDL & Associates)

Throughout history the need for an abundant, reliable and affordable food supply has been at the heart of social and political stability as governments recognize food security as a national security priority. In fact, food security and national security go hand-in-hand.

It is estimated that by 2050 the world population will need 100 percent more food, with 70 percent of this food coming from enhanced-efficiency technology. Commonly referred to as biotechnology, these practices increase crop yields, reduce production costs and enrich staple foods – such as through the addition of essential vitamins.

Biotechnology also helps reduce the environmental impact of agricultural practices, can increase nutrient absorption by livestock and can create crops that are tolerant of poor environmental conditions (e.g. drought).

Foods produced utilizing advanced agricultural technologies, referred to by some as food from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), have “officially” been in the food supply for approximately 20 years. In reality, we are late-comers when it comes to using technology. Nature has been naturally using genetic modification on its own for millions of years.

Despite recent defeats at the ballot box in California (2012) and Washington (2013), as well as a court challenge to Vermont’s 2014 legislation, opponents of enhanced agricultural technologies continue their efforts to stigmatize GMOs.

As the clock ticks toward the mid-term elections, ballot initiatives in Colorado and Oregon that would require the labeling of foods made with genetically modified ingredients could have a substantial impact on the farm and food sectors. Not just in those states, but as an overall barometer as to the efficacy of a state-by-state patchwork approach to GMO labeling.

One of the deceptive arguments posited by GMO opponents is that consumers have a right to know what they feed their families. This claim, however, simply doesn’t pass the “smell test”.

The issue of GMO labeling is not necessarily one of consumer choice. Consumers already have a choice to purchase non-GMO products, if that is their preference, and misguided labeling initiatives could unnecessarily scare consumers away from safe foods that offer nutritional benefits.

Opponents also contend that voluntary labeling is inadequate and is not a substitute for mandatory disclosure. A state-by-state approach, however, could lead to higher prices for consumers as producers and processors have to address different rules across different states.

According to a recent study by economists at Cornell University, mandatory GMO labeling will raise food costs for American families by an average of $500 per year. Farmers and food producers would need to build an expensive new supply chain system to track GMO crops from seed to store shelves, incurring costs that would be passed along to American consumers.

Policymakers should seek a market based solution that is consumer driven and not a patchwork state systems. To the extent GMO labeling is instituted, it should not be done in a patchwork fashion and a federal standard that reflects a market-based solution is far preferable. Voluntary labeling allows competition and consumer demand to determine the solution.

Legislation pending in the United States House of Representatives would be a major step in the right direction. The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014 (H.R. 4432) would create a uniform national program governing the premarket review and labeling of GMOs. It would require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct a safety review of all new plant varieties used for genetically engineered food before those foods are introduced into commerce.

The pending legislation would also create a new legal framework, subject to FDA oversight, that would govern the use of label claims regarding either the absence of, or use of, GMO food or food ingredients. In addition, it would require the FDA to develop a Federal definition of “natural” claims on product labels.

The world continues to benefit from investments made by the U.S. to ensure the safety of its food system – benefits which have made the world a more food secure place than it has ever been in history. U.S. agriculture has a prominent role to play in ensuring that all people around the world have access to affordable food and that consumers are able to spend their food budget on the widest variety of food choices.

Dave Ladd is a frequent guest commentator regarding public policy and the political environment. His company, RDL & Associates, assists clients in achieving their legislative and policy objectives via strategic communications, message development and interaction with elected officials.


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