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GMOs and Non-GMOs - To Label or Not to Label?

This post is part of a blogging series by marketing students at the Presidio Graduate School's MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Tiina Seppäläinen
Consumers like you and me are becoming increasingly concerned about the growth of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in our food system. In a recent poll conducted by MSNBC, 96% of over 45,000 respondents answered ‘yes’ to the question: “Do you believe genetically modified foods should be labeled?” Other surveys show similar results. Consumers are demanding more information and transparency from the biotech companies that alter food crop species through gene manipulation.
Since the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) crops in 1996, herbicide-tolerant soybeans, corn and cotton have become the most prevalent bio-tech crops. Because of the extensive use of soy and corn in our food system, 60-80% of packaged products on super market store shelves contain GE ingredients. Other GMOs that you may be inadvertently ingesting include sweeteners made from corn, modified food starch, and canola oil. While the Americas and Asian countries are rapidly expanding their acreage of GM crops, adoption remains low in Europe due to regulatory restrictions.

To help consumers make informed choices, several countries including Australia, Japan, China and the European Union have mandatory labeling laws. The European Union legislation is one of the most stringent, requiring labeling of food products, food ingredients and additives that contain authorized GE ingredients. These regulations also recognize the reality that conventional food products may be accidentally contaminated during harvesting, storage, production, or transportation. If the traces of GMOs are below a limit of 0.9%, labeling is not required.

In the United States, the FDA does not, in practice, require labeling of foods containing GMOs. There are pros and cons to labeling laws, due to consumer perceptions, economic impacts, and testing requirements. Estimates of the costs associated with labeling range from a few dollars per person per year to even 10% of a consumer’s annual food bill. For consumers, does it really boil down to a right to know what is in our foods and how the ingredients were produced?

The Organic Consumers Association has initiated a campaign to demand labeling laws. The Label GMOs organization in partnership with the True Food Network recently started a 2012 California ballot initiative. From a practical perspective, it is surprising that some organizations are promoting campaigns to both label foods with GE ingredients while also supporting the Non-GMO Project in its efforts to certify foods without them. Do we really need both?

While organic foods by law should not contain GMOs, cross-contamination does occur, primarily through sloppy handling of seeds or cross-pollination. With trace amounts of GMOs found in organic and natural foods, the Non-GMO Project was initiated to address this vulnerability. This non-profit collaboration developed an independent certification to offer consumers a choice of products that are virtually GMO free, applying the same 0.9% limit as the European Union. The goal is to reassure consumers that organic and natural foods have not been contaminated, implying that they are safe(r) to eat. Alleviating consumer concerns supports continued sales growth in the lucrative LOHAS segment. It may even attract more customers who have become concerned about GMOs in conventional foods.

What do you think?  The expense of labeling programs is ultimately born by us, the consumers, in the form of higher food costs. Are you willing to pay for labeling? Should both non-GMO and GMO foods be labeled?