In late July, President Barack Obama signed into law an important agreement that protects America’s food supply from confusing patchwork of state-level food labeling laws. The first was a GMO-labeling law passed by Vermont that went into effect in July.
The federal law will standardize the labeling requirements for food to ease the costly state-by-state labeling concerns for food companies, but there will still be numerous implications for the food chain moving forward.
“There has been a lot of discussion in the media about whether GMO labels are a good idea or a bad idea,” said Matt Roberts, agricultural economist for the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University. “But the truth is more complicated, because, as economists, we need to know the costs and benefits. And one of the things that really hasn’t been discussed well anywhere is what are the impacts of labeling on the food system? We know there are issues that do matter for a large segment of consumers, but what happens beyond the grocery store? What are the implications for the rest of the food chain.”
Roberts moderated a panel discussion on the issue, “What GMO labeling means for ‘black box’ of food storage and distribution’ at the Farm Science Review.
The federal legislation directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to write the rules that will put the legislation into effect in the next two years. The label could be text, a symbol or a QR code readable by smartphone about whether the food contains GMO ingredients.
The federal law pre-empts a Vermont state law passed in 2014, which would have taken effect in July. Advocates of the Vermont law have cried foul over the federal legislation, as the state law was more stringent and would have required such items be more clearly labeled with specific wording, “produced with genetic engineering.”
Adding to the debate is the growing popularity of voluntary labels verifying that a food does not contain GMO ingredients.
“All the evidence is that these products are in every way equivalent for consumers and are nearly indistinguishable from each other,” Roberts said. “But consumers really care about GMO labeling. It’s happening.”
Panelists were Ian Sheldon, Andersons Chair of Agricultural Marketing at Ohio State; Ken Foster, professor and head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University; and Andy Vollmar, food and feed ingredient manager of The Andersons Grain Group.
The agricultural economics-focused panel discussion has become an annual event at the Review, held in the Tobin Building on Beef Street on the west side of the Review grounds. Roberts said the effects of GMO labeling could ripple throughout the food production and distribution systems.
“What does a national GMO labeling standard mean for changes in crops that are being planted?” he said. “If we see an increase in demand for non-GMO crops, what does that do to the marketing channel, storage and transportation in segregating GMO and non-GMO crops?
“Are there differences in implications on the food chain between labels that say ‘contains GMOs’ versus a ‘non-GMO’ label?”
The discussion provided food for thought for farmers, journalists, legislators and policymakers in attendance.
“I would like everyone to come away with a better understanding of the subtle costs — the potentially large costs — involved with GMO labeling,” Roberts said. “We do have markets for non-GMO crops, they do exist, but they are a very small part of the overall market.
“So what happens if in a very short time period we rapidly expand that? Is this something that is relatively easy and well understood, or will this create a lot of dislocation?”
Implications include logistics in the segregation of GMO and non-GMO food items, he said.
“All of that end-to-end processing that is almost a black box to consumers,” Roberts said. “People know that it exists, we know that crops are grown and they show up a little while later on our store shelves, but everything in between is pretty opaque.
“What I would like to do is shed a little light on what GMO labeling can do to these intermediate steps,” he said.