GMO Labeling Could Be Cheap, but Ballot Initiative Campaigns Are Expensive

Big food and biotech interests are pouring money into Colorado and Oregon ahead of the election.

Protesters on the March Against Monsanto staged in Denver in 2013. (Photo: Spiritualution/Facebook)

Oct 3, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

In just over a month, voters in Colorado and Oregon will go to the polls to decide, among other items on the ballot, whether to label genetically engineered foods—making this the time for final pitches from opposing camps in races that promise to be tight. The message from the pro-label camp is fairly simple: Consumers have the right to know whether the food they’re buying and consuming has been genetically modified. Opponents of labeling, backed largely by big food and biotech corporations, have, for their part, relied on a handful of arguments: that labels would only confuse consumers, that the proposed laws are poorly written, and that labeling would be costly for manufacturers, raising food prices for the rest of us.

But research from Consumer Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, may sway some voters in Colorado and Oregon nervous about paying more at checkout for food labels. Compiling data from six previous labeling cost studies—including a 2012 study reporting that each California resident would pay $15 extra per year under G.E. food labeling—the new report, released Wednesday, found that labeling laws result in a median cost of $2.30 per person, per year. Basically the equivalent of a cup of coffee or two annually.

“The anti-labeling contingent hasn’t ever had a leg to stand on in terms of cost,” says Katherine Paul, associate director at the Organic Consumers Association, which has donated more than $50,000 and $200,000 to support labeling initiatives in Colorado and Oregon, respectively. “In the 60 countries in the world where labels are required, it has never raised the cost of retail for consumers. This has never been an issue; it’s just the opposition making it an issue.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean anti-labeling groups won’t make cost an issue between now and Nov. 4. In Colorado, the website for the No on 105 Coalition states that the initiative “would increase grocery costs for Colorado families by hundreds of dollars per year.” In Oregon, the No on 92 Coalition site, which is eerily similar to Colorado’s site, says the exact same thing, save for the state name.

Paul admits that in California, where the Proposition 37 labeling initiative lost handily in 2012, the cost argument was highly effective. Support for labeling in California was close to 65 percent in July of that year but dropped to 39 percent in October following a $46 million media blitz made possible by corporate food and agriculture companies. The thrust of the “no” campaign’s argument was that labeling would cost each Golden State family dearly at the checkout.

“Our opposition is nothing if not well-funded and savvy,” Paul says. “The opposition can hire the best focus groups and best marketing teams and best PR firms in the world. They wouldn’t continue to use that argument if they didn’t think it was effective.”

There are, of course, impassioned arguments against GMO labeling from individuals not affiliated with Monsanto or PepsiCo that do not resort to what Paul calls “fear mongering” about food price increases. Michael Specter, a science writer at The New Yorker, wrote in August that while GMO labeling may make political sense, it lacks scientific sense. Most proposed laws, he says, are so vague that almost every product in the supermarket would require a label indicating that it was made with genetically modified ingredients. “All the food we eat has been modified in some way—either by nature or by humans,” he writes, adding that GMOs are necessary to feed a growing world.

Still, Paul says she believes GMO labeling will pass in Oregon, despite more than $5.4 million spent by the opposition and an editorial in The Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper, urging voters to reject the plan. Potential price increases were front and center in the editorial board’s argument—and that reasoning is a little weaker after this week’s Consumer Union report.

“Oregonians may or may not like genetically engineered food products and the big companies that provide them,” the editorial reads, “but such antipathy is a lousy reason to approve a measure that will mislead many consumers and place a disproportionate financial burden on those least able to carry it.”

When discussing the group's prospects in Colorado, Paul doesn’t seem as confident.

“We saw the opposition pour millions of dollars into Colorado because they’re nervous about suffering a loss in both states,” she says, referring to nearly $5 million spent by Monsanto last week alone in Colorado. “It’ll be a strong battle, but there’s a lot of support in Colorado for labeling. It may come down to who’s got the most money to spend.”