How Much Are You Willing to Pay for GMO Labeling?

A recent poll suggests that while Californians are gung-ho about Prop 37, they don't want to pay the price.
Will consumers let the threat of a price increase keep them from food transparency? (Guido Mieth/Getty Images)
Oct 2, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Ask people whether they want more transparency in their food system, and many will say yes. Ask them if they're willing to pay for it, and that conviction starts to dissolve. 

That's exactly what some pollsters predict will happen for Prop 37, a new proposition on California's November ballot that would require genetically modified foods to be labeled as such.

Prop 37 made it onto the ballot in July; shortly thereafter, big corporations with a stake in keeping GMOs unlabeled started throwing millions at a campaign to fight the bill. Supporters of Prop 37, on the other hand, have argued that despite companies' claim that the public doesn't need labeling, there is widespread support for it in California. And they're not wrong—91 percent of Californians support GMO labeling, says California's Right to Know campaign. The Just Label It campaign estimates the support is not limited to Californians, stating that 92 percent of Americans across the country want the FDA to label genetically engineered foods. 

And perhaps most promising, a recent poll says that 78 percent of Californians already plan to vote "yes" on Prop 37 come November. 

But there's a rub: The poll, conducted by economists Jayson L. Lusk and Brandon McFadden at Oklahoma State University, also found that when pressed to consider paying higher prices for labeling, people's support for the measure eroded. 

One thousand three Californians were surveyed. Among those who said they intended to vote yes for Prop 37, 71 percent said the primary reason was because “people have the right to know what is in their food,” says the report, released October 1st. Sixteen percent said they intended to vote yes because doing so would “make the food supply safer.” Both are worthy reasons. So why did people throw in the towel when pressed to pay up?

A follow-up question asked respondents who already planned to vote yes: “Would you still vote "YES" on Proposition 37 if you knew it would increase food prices by X%?" Respondents received different values for X, some answering to a 5 percent increase; others to a 25 percent increase. According to the report, at the prospect of a price increase, 46 percent of respondents who had said they planned to vote "yes" switched their votes to "no."

What stands out in the report is that Americans are easily swayed. People's response to survey questions correlated with commercials they saw that were either pro- or anti- Prop 37. Many respondents didn't know much about the proposition.

"Overall, California voters were highly uninformed about the use of genetic engineering in general and about Prop 37 in particular," the report states. "Only 43% could correctly identify the topic of Prop 37 out of six topics presented." Many respondents were also unaware that genetically modified foods are present in Coke, Pespi, Frito Lay, Kashi, and Kellogg products.

But perhaps the most important detail—one that the survey didn't discuss and likely many voters don't know—is that the cost of food prices will be much smaller than 25 percent, much closer to a number which is almost negligible. 

Civil Eats writer Anna Gosh explains that opponents of Prop 37 say that mandatory labeling would increase food costs for the average family by $600 to $825 per year. Trouble is, opponents have more than a small stake in labeling laws. "Since opponents are the ones doing the analysis, it's not surprising that they're grossly overestimated," says Ghosh.

Meanwhile, an impartial consulting firm did a study in 2001 and found that labeling would increase annual food spending by .01 to .17 percent. That's less than one percent, or, as Ghosh explains, about 33 cents to $5.58 in 2010 dollars (inflation adjusted) annually. Skip a Starbucks run, and you've made up for the loss.

Ghosh also makes the point that changing labels is nothing new—just think how many times you've read that your orange juice/soda/snacks are "new and improved" or "now with vitamin D!"

The important takeaway from the study is not that people won't pay to implement for what's right. It's that they're bombarded with misinformation, or lack access to all the facts of what Prop 37 will change in our food system.

Want to immunize yourself from misinformation? Educate yourself on the issue with TakePart's Prop 37 coverage.

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