Saturday, August 17, 2013

Labelling GMOs - Why not?

This week, I wanted to look into the topic of labelling GMOs. As I start writing this blog, my perspective is "who cares"? If people want to purchase GMO-free food, then they should have that right. Similar to buying organic labelled or fair-trade labelled, if it's important to the buyer then why shouldn't they be able to do the same? So, I'm interested in reasons why pro-GMO parties would be against labelling.


I started by reading a study carried out by the Food Standards Agency in the UK. The UK has had GMO labelling for several years and you can read all about their guidelines. The goal of the study, published in 2012, was "To explore UK public views on the labelling of GM (genetic modification) on foods, and the options for labelling food as GM-Free in the UK". The 129-page study looked at numerous areas, including how labelling impacts decision making about buying foods, and public awareness about GMOs. There were 70 participants in the study from across the UK, broad age range, and range of education.

Some findings seemed pretty obvious. For example, there was strong association between people who check the label and concern with food quality or healthy eating. I was shocked to learn that only 2% of participants check for GM ingredients in their labels. Even when the survey prompted them, 4% of participants said that they check for these ingredients.

There was low awareness and knowledge on the topic of GMs: 60% of participants knew little or nothing about genetic modifications in food or food production. Some people didn't know that GM foods were for sale, others thought that they had been banned. Participants generally felt that they couldn't make a decision about GM foods, but tended to feel that GMOs were "unnatural". People who tended to view GMs negatively were more suspicious overall of the food industry (probably because they've heard of Monsanto's kitten-eating cows)

I was interested to read the section on cost of GM and was a bit disappointed that this topic wasn't investigated in-depth. The only conclusion in this section was that most participants didn't want to bear the burden of GM-labelling costs, although anti-GMO individuals and highly health-conscious participants didn't care about paying extra.

The study also looked into nuances and wording of the labels, as well as what the public felt comfortable labelling as "GM-free". Here are a few interesting findings:
  • 53% thought that meats should not be labelled "GM free" if the animal had received vaccines or medicine produced using genetic modification (huh??? I wonder why the participants thought that a vaccine produced using GM technology would affect the meat?)
  • 69% thought it important for that animals not be fed GM plants, for items like meat, milk, or eggs (I was surprised about the eggs).
  • 41% of participants would be more likely to buy a product labelled GM free. 49% would be less likely to buy a product with a label that indicates that it contains GM
I tried searching for a similar study on US public perception on food labelling. I found a lot of interesting information and conclusions align with the UK study. Here are a few nuggets:
  • One study took identical pairs of ingredients and labelled one in each pair as "organic". Consumers found that the "organic" ingredients tasted better, thought they had fewer calories, and were willing to pay more
  • A recent study examined food label designs. Although I didn't have access to the article, the abstract states that even if the label is stating that the product is free of genetically modified ingredients, it increased the consumer's hazard perception and decreased purchase intentions, relative to a no-label condition.
  • A study from 2003 found that most Americans do not know about GMOs, and their opinions are not yet firm on the technology. Although only 1% of participants mentioned that the labelling of GMOs in food was important to them, 94% said that GM ingredients should be labelled when prompted with the question. 52% of individuals surveyed said that a label indicating that food has a GM ingredient would make them less likely to purchase the item.
  • A news poll on GM labelling generated very similar results. 93% of participants want to see labels stating if food has been genetically modified, and 57% said that they would be less likely to buy foods with such labels. 52% of those surveyed also though that these foods were unsafe.
  • In "huh... that's interesting" category: there's a WTO agreement, where food safety standards are set by each member nation and must be based on science. Hypotetically, if a labelling law were to pass using the argument that GMOs are not safe, then the evil Monsanto could lodge a complaint with the WTO against the government on the basis that there's no scientific evidence for the law.
So... Labelling... I'm not sure where I stand on this one anymore. The best solution would be for people to learn about GMOs and to make an informed decision. But in the course of writing this blog, I'm learning that it's not easy, even for people with strong backgrounds in science. If you've been following this blog, you'll know that I still haven't read anything to merit food labelling, and it bothers me that people would be swayed easily enough to think that GMOs are bad for you even by reading a label that says "GMO-free".

Basically, I don't want to pay the price for labelling and I don't want my kid growing up thinking that his mom is evil. So, I ask the question: if you're concerned about GMOs, why don't you just buy "Certified Organic" labels? The USDA has clarified that "organic" also means GMO-free, so why is an additional label required? Is the label not specific enough? I honestly don't know the answer to these questions, so please feel free to comment below.

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