This morning, the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH) released a study of the potential financial impacts of enacting Initiative 522, which would require the labeling of foods made with genetically engineered ingredients. They determine that labeling would not increase grocery prices, potential litigation costs would be minimal, and, citing the state's Office of Financial Management, any tax burden on state residents will be minor as well.
This is likely a response to the No on 522 campaign's claims that the initiative would cost average families almost $500 a year in increased grocery prices, based on studies the No campaign paid for. This new study wasn't paid for by the Yes on 522 campaign, but it's funded by a decidedly pro-labeling organization. (The ANH is dedicating to promoting natural health care choices.) And the debate over prices is a total retread of the same arguments that were made in California last year when their similar Proposition 37 was on the ballot. ANH even commissioned basically the same study, by the same professor, in California last August.
The fight over prices is playing out because voters respond to it—they don't respond as well to complex, nuanced debates about science and technology. So this is the conversation we get.
But both sides are being relatively disingenuous here.
The No on 522 campaign's studies assume that food manufacturers would reformulate their products to avoid genetically engineered ingredients because they're so terrified of being slapped with this GMO label. That's a ridiculous claim to make; its reasoning appears to be that some European food producers changed formulas to avoid labeling when the EU mandated labeling in the '90s. As the ANH study's author, Emory law professor Joanna M. Shepherd-Bailey, said in response to questions about those other studies this morning, "Compared to Europe, America has been more accepting of [GMO foods]"; she doesn't predict that American producers will suffer the same pressure to avoid the label, because the backlash against genetically engineered foods here is far smaller than Europe's.
But her study assumes basically the opposite of the ones she says are faulty: Nobody will change their ingredients to avoid the label. And the minuscule one-time labeling change costs won't be passed on to the consumer at all, because labeling is part of the cost of doing business, because changing prices itself costs money, because the grocery store is a competitive place and higher prices can drive away cost-conscious shoppers. If labeling costs are passed on, says this study, they'll be a few dollars a year, and only a one-time thing. That's reasonable, but: Did Shepherd-Bailey look at the potential for reformulating foods to do without GMO ingredients at all? No. Why? "Because we're not prepared to make the assumption that they did, that reformulation will occur."
So one side says everyone will change it up, and the other side says no one will. And both of them present their findings in such an obviously campaign-y way—the no folks with their usual stodgy, businesslike reports that pretend to be objective, the yes folks with their usual friendly, cartoony pictures of shiny produce and green leaves—that it's hard to rely on them as anything but propaganda.