October 5, 2015

Voluntary GMO-Free Labeling: The Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences has been used by philosophers, economists and sociologists to describe unforeseen outcomes of well-meant action—generally referring to public policy enacted by the government.  A famous example of this “law” is the 18th Amendment, ratified in 1919, prohibiting the manufacturing or sale of alcohol in the United States.  One unintended consequence of Prohibition was to strengthen organized crime as bootlegging provided the financial resources to pursue other illicit activities.  Another was the loss of 14 percent in tax revenue that came from alcohol sales.  Finally, after more than a decade of weak enforcement and the onset of the Great Depression, the 21st Amendment ended the Noble Experiment in 1933.

Well-intended federal legislation addressing the labeling of genetically modified foods may have unintended consequences for a segment of the very industry it aims to help.  Passed by the House in July, a bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Pompeo [R-KS] would create a uniform national system governing the labeling of genetically modified foods, or GMOs.  Let me be clear.  No one is comparing this bill, the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015,” to Prohibition.  In fact, elements of the Pompeo bill are vitally important.  To date, more than 70 bills have been introduced in more than 30 states to require mandatory GMO labeling.  Three states have already passed such statutes: Vermont, Connecticut and Maine.  This patchwork of state standards will increase costs for producers and result in both confusion and higher prices for consumers.  We strongly support the need for federal pre-emption of these state laws, which is the heart of the Pompeo bill.

However, another component of the bill could backfire on the industry: Voluntary GMO-free labeling.  This provision would establish a USDA-accredited certification process for those who want to label their products as GMO-free.  Perhaps voluntary GMO-free labeling is intended to garner trust and goodwill among consumers concerned about the safety of GMO foods.  But this is where the legislation is short-sighted.  Right now, there are only eight genetically modified crops commercially produced in the United States.  Only three are fresh produce items—papayas, squash and sweet corn—with two more, the Arctic apple and Innate potato, approved by federal regulators.  With so few GMO fresh produce crops, what is the need or benefit of labeling fresh produce GMO-free?

Let’s take a logical look at how voluntary GMO-free labeling could play out.  Once the USDA-accredited certification process is in place, fresh produce companies will likely seek to capitalize on the marketing advantages of labeling their products GMO-free.  Public opinion research tells us that many consumers lack good information about GMO technology and have concerns about its presence in foods.  A GMO-free label in the fresh produce aisle does nothing to educate consumers about GMO technology, but it does tend to validate the unfounded fears perpetuated by GMO critics.

As consumers see more of these labels in the produce aisle, they will only become more alarmed about the safety of GMO foods everywhere in the store.  From a consumer perspective, seeing increased GMO-free labels on produce leads to two conclusions: 1) if companies are labeling their products GMO-free, then GMOs must have some negative health impacts, and 2) if a fresh produce item does not have a GMO-free label, then it must be GMO.  Consumers will be more likely to avoid products without the GMO-free label, which in turn will compel virtually all fresh produce companies to use the GMO-free label.  In effect, the voluntary GMO-free labeling provision will become a mandate.

The science tells us that genetically-modified foods are safe. There are potential benefits for farm practices and productivity, such as reduced water and pesticide use, increased yields using less land, and protection of crops from devastating diseases.  While there has been little GMO introduction in the produce industry, we want to be open-minded about the potential benefits, and we need consumers to be open-minded as well.  The confusion and increased distrust that would flow from a GMO-free labeling movement would make it harder to educate consumers about GM technology.  Any potential benefits of GMO technology in the fresh produce sector will remain elusive if companies marketing fresh produce are drawn into a GMO-free labeling regime that, however unintentionally, hardens consumers’ negative perceptions about the safety of the technology.

The Pompeo bill is now awaiting consideration in the Senate.  We hope the good provisions in the bill will advance without the voluntary GMO-free labeling provisions—and the unintended consequences that will follow.