The push to require labels for genetically modified food, which flared up in Californiabefore drowning under a flood of industry cash last year, is now underway in Washington State. Predictably, agrichemical and organic interests are pouring money into, respectively, defeating and supporting a ballot initiative called I-522, which would require foods containing GMO ingredients to bear labels. Just as predictably, the agribusiness interests are garnering much more money to kill the effort than their organic peers are in supporting it—outspending them $17.1 million to $4.6 million, the Spokane-Review reports.
Meanwhile, in a development that broke late Wednesday, the Washington State Attorney General has filed a complaint alleging that the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group that donated $2 million to the effort to defeat California's labeling initiative, violated state campaign laws and "spent more than $7 million while shielding the identity of its contributors," according to its press release. [...]
So which is right? Over at Grist, Michael Lipsky, a distinguished senior fellow at the progressive think-tank Demos, argues that labeling wouldn't likely cost consumers much at all. The cost of changing labels would be trivial, he writes—food manufacturers "do it all the time." Ever seen the words "new and improved" on some boxed delicacy?
The Northbridge study, he shows, is based on the assumption that, in order to avoid having to declare that their products contain GMOs, food manufactures will rapidly switch over to non-GMO ingredients, which would cost more to procure. That's because upwards of 80 percent of US corn, soybeans, and sugar beets are genetically modified—and iterations of these three crops suffuse US processed foods, providing sweeteners (high-fructose corn syrup and beet sugar), fats (corn and soy oil), and a litany of ingredients like various thickeners. For food manufacturers to get non-GMO versions of these substances, they'd have to pay a premium in the marketplace—hence higher ingredients costs that they'd want to pass on to consumers.
But that effect wouldn't last long, Lipsky argues. "If labeling were required, particularly if (and when) the labeling requirement is adopted by other states, demand for non-GMO versions of corn, soybeans, and sugar beets—the basic GMO crops—would increase, production would expand, and prices for non-GMO ingredients would decline," he writes. That makes good sense: basic supply and demand.
And here's something Lipsky didn't get to: even in the short term, the effect on retail prices would likely be small. That's because ingredients make up a tiny portion of the expenses incurred by manufactures to process food and move it to grocery store shelves. Transportation, marketing, processing—all of these things cost more than the actual food in the box of cereal or frozen dinner at Walmart.