In Search of a (Biotech-) Free Lunch
November 15, 2002
by Alex A. Avery
Consumers will say yes to almost anything if it’s offered for free, but it’s a whole different story if there is real price to pay. This fact was demonstrated by the overwhelming defeat this last election of a statewide ballot initiative in Oregon, named Measure 27, which would have mandated labeling of all biotech foods.
Over the past few years, consumers have seemed to overwhelmingly support labeling of biotech foods. Consumer polling has consistently shown between 75 and 90 percent support for mandatory labels. Indeed, consumer-polling data released on Election Day by a deceptively-named activist group (the Center for Food Safety) showed 88.5 percent of consumers supporting mandatory GM food labeling. The CFS’s legal director Joseph Mendelson said, “Whatever the outcome of Measure 27, this poll gives a clear indication of the American sentiment towards genetically engineered food.”
Had Measure 27 passed, everything from fig newtons to filet mignon would have had to carry a prominent label declaring whether or not any of its ingredients came from biotech crops. The measure would have significantly increased the costs of all foods because of the bureaucratic red tape involved in determining and tracking the source of food ingredients. By one estimate, Measure 27 would have cost each Oregon family more than $500 per year in added food costs.
Measure 27 read in part: “Labeling of genetically engineered food and food additives shall be required in order to create and enforce the fundamental right of people in Oregon to know if they are buying or eating genetically engineered food and to have the choice in buying or eating” biotech foods, and “All foods in the following categories sold or distributed in or from Oregon, shall bear a label . . . that is plainly visible on the principal display panel and contains the words ‘Genetically Engineered.’”
Yet on Election Day, voters rejected Measure 27 by a whopping three-to-one margin—exactly the opposite of what more than five years of consumer polling data had been saying. Some might ask why and when did the radical reversal of voter sentiment occur? When did the voters change their minds, radically and in unison? That’s the wrong question. There was no reversal of voter sentiment or collective changing of the minds. In reality, the consumer polls and the voting results are entirely consistent.
Consumers are “for” more information about their food in general, including whether or not it came from a genetically improved crop variety. Who would be against more information? More information is good. But costs are another matter and that’s where consumer polling fails miserably. When real costs are involved, people make very different choices than when they are considering a hypothetical polling question. Even when “costs” are hypothetically included in the question to the polled, it’s still not real money.
The activists have since blamed their loss at the voting booth on the $5 million information campaign that was launched against Measure 27 and funded by food stores, restaurants, and the biotech industry. But while the information campaign surely was a major factor, this money didn’t buy a “no” vote. Rather, the voters learned of the real costs of a “yes” vote and decided it simply wasn’t worth it.
Not only would there be additional costs because of the bureaucratic red tape, but also added costs for insurance liability coverage for inevitable mistakes in ingredient sourcing and trace contamination. In reality, many if not most national food companies would have simply pulled their products from the relatively small Oregon market rather than attempt to deal with Measure 27’s onerous requirements. Thus, Measure 27 would have not only substantially increased food costs, but it would have simultaneously reduced consumer choice. Less for more is a bad bargain.
And that brings us to the heart of Measure 27: Anti-biotech activists have fought so hard for mandatory biotech food labels because they hope such labels could be twisted into de facto warning labels in the minds of consumers. As Andrew Kimbrell, head of CFS, has said, “We are going to force them to label this food. If we have it labeled, then we can organize people not to buy it.” Later Kimbrell said, “Once supermarkets begin [eliminating GE ingredients from their store brands], that’s the end of genetically modified foods in the United States!”
If consumers have concerns over biotech foods—despite their having been proven safe in every manner currently known to science and medicine and approved by no less than three government regulatory agencies—they already have a choice of biotech-free food available to them. Biotech crops are prohibited from being labeled as organic foods under the new national organic food standards released in October by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of course, organic foods cost considerably more than non-organic foods, proving once again the old adage that there's no such thing as a free lunch.
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.