OLYMPIA, Oct. 10.—A state scientific panel is offering independent confirmation of one of the big claims in this year’s initiative campaign to force the labeling of genetically modified food – that it’s going to cost consumers big bucks at the supermarket checkstand.
Exactly how much Initiative 522 would cost consumers, it doesn’t say. But the white paper from the Washington State Academy of Sciences says labeling wouldn’t tell consumers much, and there are plenty of ways the labeling measure would make food more expensive. By offering its two cents, the state scientific institution appears to be offering an opinion on an issue that so far has been a matter of argument between the yes-and-no forces – and it may be the weightiest and most objective statement yet issued in the year’s biggest ballot clash.
“It is likely that if mandatory labeling passes, this will impose costs on private industry,” said Tom Marsh, a professor of agricultural economics at Washington State University. “The actual act of labeling is probably going to be a very minimal cost. But the act of segregating a product, all the way from crop production to wholesale and retail, is likely to impose costs, and we don’t know what they are going to be.”
Consumers might have more information, but it would offer them little benefit, the report says, and “higher food prices would make consumers worse off, especially low-income consumers.” Consider it another blow to the campaign argument, now being sounded in the ads for I-522, that the measure “won’t cost a dime.”
Would Require Food Labeling
I-522, the hottest thing on the Washington ballot this year, would require labels on about 70 percent of the products sold on supermarket shelves – anything with an ingredient that has been modified by tinkering at the genetic level. Because of the high preponderance of genetically modified organisms in the American market, corn and soybeans in particular, it would have the effect of placing a government-mandated warning label on the bulk of processed and prepared food products now sold in Washington. Yet there is no scientific evidence of harm – no one has gotten sick from eating GMO foods – and grocery manufacturers and biotech firms say a labeling requirement in this state would be the opening chink in a fundamentally anti-science effort by food activists to drive safe products off the market.
The independent report “confirms what we’ve said all along about I-522 is factual and correct, and it also shows that the proponents’ claims about impacts of the measure are not simply wrong but misleading,” said Dana Bieber, spokeswoman for the no-on-522 campaign.
The Washington campaign is a replay of a California ballot-measure campaign that fell just shy of passage last year. The states of Maine and Connecticut have passed labeling bills, but they do not take effect unless neighboring New England states pass similar requirements. By imposing a labeling rule on just one state, food activists hope to launch a nationwide movement that would force Congress to impose a countrywide labeling requirement. Big money is being spent on both sides – biotech firms and the Grocery Manufacturers Association have put up most of the $17.1 million raised to defeat the measure, while big-spending out-of-state organic-food interests have put up most of the $5.1 million raised to promote the effort.
While most attention on the campaign seems to be focused on the money, one thing seems clear – the effort doesn’t have much to do with science. Though the language of I-522 itself contains multiple charges about the hazards of GMO foods, the campaign itself denies that it is making any claims. “We’re not saying whether GMOs are good or bad,” says Elizabeth Larter, spokeswoman for the I-522 campaign. “All we are trying to do is just to give Washington grocery shoppers more information about their food.”
Information Without Purpose
The Washington State Academy of Sciences isn’t taking sides in what is essentially a political argument. But as an institution that aims to provide counsel to the Legislature on matters of science, it aims to provide unbiased scientific analysis of issues important to the state. Legislative committee chairs this year posed a series of questions to the academy – among them questions about nutrition, health risks and potential costs.
The report, released Wednesday, concludes there is no scientific case for labeling – no evidence that nutrition is any lower with genetically modified foods, and no evidence of a human health risk that warrants a warning. “There have been no statistically significant, repeatable evidence of adverse human health effects consequences due to GM products,” it says. “Given the current state of knowledge and evidence, GM foods are considered to ‘not differ’ in safety as compared with foods with non-GM ingredients.”
Key thing is that the labeling requirement “is likely to affect trade and impose higher costs on firms producing and selling products in Washington,” it says. “These costs are likely to be passed on to the consumer, resulting in higher food prices.”
Benefits ‘Hard to Quantify’
The report says higher food prices will hit firms and consumers of both GM and non-GM foods. The scheme of regulation will impose costs on manufacturers as well as on the state Department of Health, which would be required to monitor compliance, anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to millions of dollars a year. “The wide range reflects the lack of ‘after the fact’ economic data,” it says – nothing like it has been tried before. It notes that the state Office of Financial Management estimated regulatory oversight costs of a minimal program at $3.4 million over five years. But it points out that the Washington Research Council, in a campaign-sponsored report, suggested that the effort might be more akin to the current state organics program. Extrapolated to the volume of food products that would require testing and regulatory oversight, the Research Council suggested that the cost might be upwards of $22 million a year.
The Academy’s report suggests that the Washington Research Council might be on the right track. The report notes that other states estimated much higher regulatory costs than did Washington. When a similar labeling measure appeared on the Oregon ballot in 2002, the Beaver State estimated direct costs to state government at $11.3 million annually, plus a onetime startup cost of $6.5 million. At the time Oregon’s population was about half of the present population of Washington – and Oregon’s decade-old estimate makes no allowance for inflation.
And what benefit would the consumer receive? In its rather dry language, the report says it is “harder to assess and quantify,” because there is no reason to suspect that the labeling would serve any health-related purpose. “For example, mandatory labeling for nutrition is beneficial because it is an aid to consumers in choosing a healthier diet. Mandatory labeling for GMOs is less clear because there are no obvious nutritional differences between GMOs and and non-GMOs.”
An Important Distinction
Larter of the yes-on-522 campaign says the conclusions of the state Academy report are suspect because “it cites the WRC report for data,” noting that the Research Council report was sponsored by the opposition campaign. But it is important to note that the point cited by the Academy report – about regulatory costs – has nothing to do with food prices.
Larter says there is no evidence that labeling rules have increased food prices in other countries, but reports cited by proponents have been based on studies in the European Union countries, where the market is very different than in the United States. The European countries began imposing labeling requirements in 1998, before genetically modified foods were a major factor on the market, and the labeling requirement essentially has discouraged their introduction. Thus studies based on Europe cannot estimate impact on prices.
When the Academy says the initiative would drive up food costs, it points to the cost of segregating genetically modified ingredients from non-GMO ingredients in the process of manufacturing food. This would be a difficult task given the fact that the initiative imposes a zero-tolerance standard in 2019. It points out that some costs, like those imposed by third-party litigation, are unknowable. And it notes that farmers, manufacturers and retailers will bear heavy costs themselves as they comply with record-keeping requirements.
Nearly $500 a Year?
The state report doesn’t go as far as the campaign-sponsored studies – it doesn’t estimate how much food prices would rise, but simply says they will. And those campaign-sponsored studies present a rather different argument about food costs that does not conflict with the state report. If their argument is correct, those costs would be in addition to the costs described by the state.
The Washington Research Council estimates that the GMO labeling requirement would drive up food costs for the average family by $450 a year; a separate report from Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants estimates that the cost would rise $490 a year. The figures are based on the same underlying data, and the difference comes in the way that the typical family is defined.
The two campaign-sponsored reports assume that food manufacturers would try to avoid the stigma of warming labels by removing GMO ingredients from their products. That would be particularly troublesome in the case of soybeans and corn, because 90 percent of the soybean and corn products on the American market come from GMO products. Manufacturers producing goods for the Washington market would be chasing the few non-genetically modified products that are available, perhaps organic products which are double the price, and thus food costs would rise. The weakness in the argument is that the campaign reports assume that every manufacturer would substitute every modified ingredient; the substitution effect might be somewhat lower.
Marsh said the Academy report did not deal with the substitution argument, though it might have some validity, and it is another factor that could drive up costs. He said the Academy thought it best to take a more conservative approach and avoid a precise cost estimate – it just seems clear that costs will rise. “Because we are uncertain about these costs will lie, it is hard to judge what the effect will be on an individual family,” he said.