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Commentary: Voters must assess consequences of labeling GM food

Issue Date: July 25, 2012
By David Zilberman
David Zilberman
About 70 percent of total soybean acreage is planted to genetically modified varieties. California voters face a ballot initiative in November that would require labeling of food containing GM ingredients.

Genetically modified organisms in agriculture have been a source of controversy since their introduction in the mid-1990s. On the one hand, the planting of GM varieties has spread rapidly. In the case of soybeans, more than 70 percent of total acreage used for their cultivation is of some type of GM variety. However, GM varieties have not been adopted in major crops like wheat, rice and potatoes, and are banned in the European Union and most African countries. There has been continuous debate over the regulation of GM varieties, and California voters now face a proposition that will require the labeling of food that contains genetically modified ingredients.

On the surface, the main argument behind the proposition is the right of individuals to know the true makeup of the food they eat. I agree with this in principle, but in the case of this particular proposition, the crux of this issue has little to do with freedom of choice. In fact, voluntary labeling of GMO-free products can meet the informational needs of people who want to avoid GMOs. Anyone who is strongly opposed to buying GM products is free to do so, as U.S. Department of Agriculture "certified organic" products do not contain GMOs.

The real issue of the proposition is the benchmark required for mandatory labeling. Right now, the benchmark is proven toxicity or meaningful health effects; thus, the government has rightly required the labeling of cigarettes and caloric contents. GM products are not required to be labeled because regulatory research has found them to be as safe as conventional foods.

From an economic perspective, labeling GMOs makes sense if the net benefit from having it outweighs the cost. While some people may feel strongly against GMOs and may vote for the proposition because their perceived benefits from labeling are very high, I suspect that there are many others who are indifferent or only slightly concerned about GM varieties, yet may be unaware of the environmental and social benefits of GMOs and the potential negative consequences of labeling.

Most of the food we eat today has been bred for humans and modified through a variety of techniques. They include traditional selective breeding, as well as induced mutations through radiation or other chemicals. The discovery of DNA and advances in modern molecular biology have allowed the development of more refined and precise crop breeding techniques.

The early commercial applications of GMOs, namely traits to control pests, are the "low hanging fruits" of research efforts and it is likely that more appealing traits (i.e., drought tolerance, nitrogen fixation, etc.) will be developed.

One of the main concerns about GM varieties was that they mostly benefited technology providers. However, GM varieties increase supply and, as a result, prices tend to decline, which makes consumers better off. While farmers may have received lower prices, they also experience lower costs and higher yields. Thus, seed companies, farmers and consumers may all share the economic benefit resulting from the adoption of GM varieties.

Studies that investigated the benefits of adoption of GMOs around the world have identified a wide variety of benefits, from increased yield and reduced cost, reduced financial risk associated with farming, as well as non-monetary benefits like reduced pesticide exposure for farmworkers and reduced effort associated with monitoring pests and application of pesticides.

GM varieties also have significant environmental and health impacts, and a recent National Research Council report found them to be at least as safe as conventional food.

The increase in agricultural production due to the introduction of GMOs has significantly affected food prices. Biotechnology has been one of the most dominant sources of the increase in supply of agricultural commodities and thus has contributed to a reduction in agricultural commodity prices.

The increase in agricultural productivity and reduction in toxic pesticide use associated with GM varieties can make a difference in addressing the challenges of climate change. Higher yields mean that less land is required for agricultural production; thus, the increase in output due to GMOs has already contributed to reduced conversion of non-agricultural land for agricultural use. Furthermore, through soil carbon sequestration and the reduction in use of inputs, production with GMOs has contributed to significant decreases in greenhouse gas emissions.

GMOs are a new technology and they have their own limitations. Obviously, pest resistance has and will continue to emerge with the use of GM varieties. The only way to sustain and improve agricultural productivity is to continue to conduct research and stay ahead of emerging challenges.

Sustainability is not a state of nirvana; rather, evolution occurs and advanced scientific knowledge and technology is the key to keeping up and improving welfare. Biotechnology is one of many agricultural technologies that can play a pivotal role in our future.

The main question is not whether consumers should have a choice regarding their own consumption of GMOs, but rather whether GM foods will be the norm and non-GM food labeled, or vice versa. Mainstream scientific research findings have not found GM food to be riskier to health or the environment than other foods. Furthermore, there is evidence that GM food improves both human and environmental well-being.

Labeling of GMOs will make GM food less attractive to some consumers, reduce demand and make investment in this technology less appealing. We have the experience of the European ban of GM varieties in 1999, which was associated with significant contraction in investment and patenting of GM traits.

Introduction of policies that require labeling and add any other obstacles to the evolution of GMOs may have a similar effect. Voters will have to ask whether the potential gain associated with labeling is worth the cost associated with technological stagnation and the resulting losses in economic and environmental welfare.

(David Zilberman is a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. He can be contacted by e-mail at Excerpted from UC Agricultural and Resource Economics Update.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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