One might assume that defeat at the ballot box would be a real setback for a policy idea. But in the case of labeling of GM (genetically modified) food that assumption would be wrong. 

California’s Proposition 37 (Prop 37), which proposed mandatory labeling of GMOs, was defeated in November 2012. Despite this, Prop 37 appears to have a legislative and political legacy. This legacy reflects a history of long-standing, well-coordinated and well-funded campaign against genetically modified food. Since January 2013, more than two dozen states have introduced bills into their legislature that would enact labeling for genetically modified foods. While some may think that labeling GMO foods will result in more transparency, the opposite is actually the case. Labeling GMO foods is more likely to confuse consumers than to inform them.

It’s not as straightforward as slapping a label on a can and calling it a day. Many labeling advocates assume that there are only two (sets of) actors involved, ‘Big Ag’ and ‘Big Retail.’ But that’s just not the case. The agricultural and food production value chain is long and complex and includes many private and public sector actors: research labs, seed companies, farmers, elevator/managers, grain handlers, transport companies, importers and exporters, processors, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants. If mandatory labeling of GMOs were enacted, costs (identity preservation, administrative and other) would be incurred all along the value chain. Make no mistake – those costs will be passed along to the consumer. Food prices will rise.

In addition to increased food costs, labeling of GMOs would have other effects. According to the results of a recent study conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Juanjuan Zhang, consumers assume that the government knows more than they do about the safety of the food supply. “[Thus] if the government requires labels on food, consumers will suspect something is wrong with it,” says Zhang. A GMO label runs the real risk of looking like a warning label.

And that would be misleading to consumers.  Thousands of scientific studies on the safety of genetically engineered foods have been conducted worldwide. More than 600 peer-reviewed studies have been gathered here attesting to the safety of GMOs and many of those studies have been carried out by independent academics and publicly funded research institutes. Food production is a hotly debated issue and a great deal of propaganda about GMO food has spread like wildfire over the Internet via social media platforms. This has led to unfounded fear on the part of a small, yet vocal minority. That this fear of GMOs persists, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is a problem for those that understand the science and how it can help to feed a growing world population, mitigate crop disease and fight pests, and improve the environment.

Mandatory labels should be reserved for products that carry a documented health risk, such as allergens, or in cases where products represent a substantive change in nutritional composition. This is, in fact, what existing FDA labeling policy requires.  Scientific evidence affirms that GMO foods are indistinguishable from foods produced through traditional methods. Labeling them would be misleading for consumers and labels, by law, cannot be misleading. If people really want to avoid eating GMOs, they can. They have the option of eating foods labeled ‘Certified USDA Organic’ This alone pretty much makes GMO labels redundant.

Where are things at now from a legislative perspective? In early June, the Connecticut House voted 134 to 3 in favor of the GM labeling bill HB06527. By mid June, Maine’s House passed LD 718 by a vote of 141 to 4. To supporters of GMO labeling, this might be starting to look like a ‘win.’ But a ‘bipartisan compromise’ was introduced in the case of Connecticut that requires four additional states, one of which must border the state, to pass similar legislation in order to ‘trigger’ Connecticut’s labeling requirement. An additional caveat is that the aggregate population of any combination of such states exceed 20 million people. It’s not over yet.

Labeling GMOs for ‘right to know’ is a costly and politicized slippery-slope. Labels – meaningful labels – are important for transparency and for consumer information. But misleading consumers with mandatory labels that falsely imply differences where none exist is wrong. Surely there are better ways to spend our tax dollars?

Cami Ryan (B.Comm, Ph.D.) is a researcher with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.  She has authored books and has published several articles in peer reviewed academic journals on innovation and research management in agriculture.  A self-professed ‘skeptical optimist’ and ‘part time mythbuster’, Cami hosts a self-titled blog that provides a platform for discourse around current agriculture and food controversies.  You can follow her on Twitter @DocCamiRyan.