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Mandatory Labelling Is A Bad Idea

Until mid-February 2003, the US government was readying a World Trade Organisation (WTO) challenge to the European Union (EU)’s moratorium on new GM crop approvals. The EU hasn’t approved any new GM varieties since 1998, and the two varieties that are approved have virtually disappeared from supermarket shelves due to consumer concerns.

European politicians have acknowledged that the moratorium may not withstand a WTO review. But they have suggested that the moratorium probably will be lifted in the next few months anyway – once new rules are in place for GM crops and foods.

Among the new rules – now being finalised by EU member states – is a requirement that GM foods be labelled and GM ingredients be ‘traced’ through the food chain, from plant-breeder and farmer, to shipper, processor and retailer. EU politicians boast that their health, environment and labelling rules comprise ‘the toughest GM legislation in the world’, and tout them as just the trick to restore public confidence in food biotechnology.

Although GM food labelling is already mandatory, advocates claim that the stronger new labelling and traceability rules will ensure that consumers have more complete information, enabling them to make informed choices. In truth, the measures will do no such thing.

Both the existing and the proposed labelling regulations only require certain categories of GM foods to be labelled, and provide no context for why some are to be labelled and others exempt. So to make truly informed choices, shoppers must rely upon other sources of information. It is more likely that mandatory labelling will merely raise the cost of GM products, and add to many consumers’ groundless fears about GM foods.

Consider the existing European Commission ‘novel foods’ regulation and the Council of the European Communities GM labelling regulation, which came into effect in 1997 and 1998 respectively. These require any food or animal feed to be labelled if DNA or proteins from a GM organism can be detected in the final product.

In practice, products like oils from GM maize or soya usually do not have to be labelled, because heat from the crushing process breaks apart DNA chains and breaks down proteins, making it impossible to tell the difference between GM and non-GM oils. Consequently, some GM-derived products – including cooking oils, maize sweetener, and the soy lecithin in chocolate – still appear unlabelled on supermarket shelves.

Some see this as a flaw in the current laws, which will be remedied by new rules expanding the labelling requirement. Under these regulations, foods and animal feed will have to be labelled if they are produced from a GM organism, regardless of whether or not the end product can be distinguished from conventionally produced items. To facilitate this change in policy, seed breeders, farmers, shippers, processors and retailers will be required to keep detailed records of GM products so they can be traced all the way through the food chain.

Nearly two billion metric tons of cereal grains are grown in the world every year. And the food supply’s continued affordability depends upon the commoditisation process, in which shippers treat all maize, soya and wheat alike. To shippers, food processors and, more importantly, the human body itself, maize is maize whether it is harvested in Britain, France or the USA, and whether it is grown from GM or conventional plants.

Segregating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) out of the commodity stream to comply with the traceability requirement would disrupt this efficient process, at immense cost. Moreover, perfect compliance would be impossible. The traceability provision could raise the bar for GM products so high that the market would abandon them – a point that may have motivated GM opponents to support labelling.

Of course, if the strict segregation of GM from non-GM were necessary to protect consumer health, such a cost might be worth bearing. But these measures are not necessary, because there isn’t a single identifiable risk of genetic modification that doesn’t also exist with one or another form of conventional breeding. And the fact that GM foods are now commercially available in EU member states – and will be available even after implementation of the new GM rules – shows that the driving force for labelling is not concern for consumer health.

Labelling supporters counter that there may be unidentifiable risks, and that their goal is simply to provide consumer choice. How, then, do supporters explain provisions in both the current and proposed labelling schemes that exempt entire classes of GM foods from the labelling mandate?

The distinction revolves around the seemingly innocuous phrase ‘produced from GM’. That is, if oil is produced from GM maize, or if tofu is produced from GM soya, then the final product is also considered to be genetically modified and must be labelled. However, foods that are ‘produced with’ a GMO – including cheeses produced with the aid of the GM clotting-agent chymosin, or wines and beers produced with GM yeasts – are not considered to be genetically modified and need not be labelled, even though residues of the GMOs often remain in the final products.

And animal feeds must be labelled if they are produced ‘from’ GM grains, providing a choice for farmers and their livestock. But meat from animals fed GM food is exempt – human consumers have less choice. If unanticipated or unidentifiable risks are the problem that makes labelling necessary, why exempt so many obviously ‘GM foods’?

Perhaps it is because there is so much disagreement over what really is and is not genetically modified – some GM critics have opposed the labelling and traceability rules because they are too lax. Or perhaps it is because European politicians are trying to carve out an exemption for domestically produced wines, beers and cheeses, while erecting an almost insurmountable barrier against imported grains.

Whatever the motivation, mandatory GM labelling is a bad idea. And one of the most compelling arguments against it is that European consumers will not be able to rely upon information provided to them. This or any other political solution will necessarily be a compromise that takes too long to implement, too long to change, and leaves too many unsatisfied. There is, however, another option.

Already, thousands of negatively labelled non-GM foods appear on shop shelves throughout the EU. Why? Because information has value, and like other valuable items, consumer demand can drive producers to make it available to those who genuinely want it. As we see in the case of GM foods, that information doesn’t necessarily come in the form of labelled GM products. But it can, and does often come in the form of labelling designed to attract consumers who want certain attributes.

Label information about GM status is primarily used by those trying to avoid GM foods. Consequently, a vibrant market has developed for foods negatively labelled as ‘GMO-free’ or ‘organic’. No mandate was necessary. Because they must compete for the attention of shoppers, food packagers and supermarkets long ago responded to consumer demand for non-GM products – and they did so with labelling policies that are actually better at providing real consumer choice.