Inexact Change

Thoughts on science, politics, and social progress.

GMO Labeling and Consumer Choice

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Some food advocacy groups argue that labeling foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will give consumers the choice of whether to consume these ingredients. But many opponents of labeling say that consumers already can choose whether they want to consume GMOs. Some, like the editors of Scientific American, even argue that mandatory labeling decreases consumer choice.

It might seem like these positions can’t all be correct, but I don’t think anyone is lying. All of them arise from different notions of consumer choice. Even though they use similar language, the claims are fundamentally different.

When labeling opponents say that consumers can already choose whether to buy GMOs, they mean that people who want to avoid GMOs can do so. They are right. It’s no secret that the vast majority of processed foods in the United States contain genetically engineered ingredients, which is why some labeling advocates have been able to illegally label GMOs themselves. People who want to avoid GMOs can buy foods from producers who label their products as non-GMO or organic.

When labeling proponents say that without labels consumers cannot choose whether they want to eat GMOs, they probably mean that many consumers are not informed of the fact that there is any choice to make at all. These people will tend to buy products containing GMOs, and it won’t tend to be the result of any deliberate choice to eat GMOs. In that sense, many people aren’t making a choice, and mandatory GMO labeling could change this.

The argument that GMO labels reduce consumer choice uses yet another measure of consumer choice, namely the number of different options available for consumers to choose from in stores. Proponents of this argument often look to the example of the European Union, where GMOs disappeared from the shelves when mandatory labeling was implemented. This meant that instead of having a choice between GMO and non-GMO foods, consumers could only find non-GMO products on store shelves.

So of all of these different ideas about consumer choice, which is the best one? I’m inclined to say that’s the wrong question altogether. Rather than assert that increased choice is a good thing and then debate what exactly we mean by choice, we should acknowledge that different kinds of choice have different implications – good and bad – and consider the options on their merits.

I suspect supporters of GMO labeling feel that the loss of choice in Europe due to GMO labeling is not necessarily a problem for consumers. If GMOs disappeared from store shelves when labeling became mandatory, it was because consumers preferred non-GMO foods. Although there were fewer choices, the options that were lost were options that people didn’t really want. That doesn’t seem like much of a loss at all.

That said, there’s another little-discussed choice that consumers would lose under mandatory labeling. Labeling proposals are usually framed as impositions on food producers. This makes sense because the producers are responsible for implementing labeling requirements. But implementing mandatory labeling would also mean that consumers could no longer buy unlabeled GMOs.

Could anybody really benefit from having less information? I think so. For one thing, a law that really gave consumers new information1 would require producers to keep track of that information along the supply chain. Currently it is common for genetically engineered commodities like corn and soy to be mixed with their non-GMO counterparts and labeling would mean that consumers could no longer choose the cost savings that this practice allows. Other consumers simply may not want to be bothered by more information.

And what about the other two notions of choice? Should we expect consumers to make a deliberate choice about whether to consume products of genetic engineering? Or is it enough that people who are already thinking about the issue can make a choice? Certainly, there are pieces of information for which this latter notion of choice is sufficient. For instance, we don’t insist that consumers make a deliberate choice to consume products of other plant breeding methods. The type of choice that is assured by mandatory labeling is generally reserved for pieces of information which are somehow important for consumers to know. If we are going to require labeling in the interest of choice, we should establish why the information is important to consumers.

This is the second in a seven part series on compulsory labeling of foods containing products of genetic engineering.

  1. Something is missing from the GMO labeling debate
  2. GMO labeling and consumer choice
  3. You don’t have a right to know what you’re eating
  4. In defense of opacity
  5. How strong is support for GMO labeling?
  6. Why mandate labeling?
  7. I don’t know whether GMO labeling should be required

  1. Some measures, such as California’s defeated Proposition 37 and Washington’s I-522 allow labels that say that a product may contain genetically engineered ingredients. Such measures wouldn’t require producers to keep track of any additional information because those producers could just add this “may contain” label to every product. This would satisfy the requirements of the labeling law, but consumers wouldn’t gain more information than was available to them in the absence of the law. Other measures, such as Connecticut’s labeling law, require labels to state definitively that products contain genetically engineered ingredients. These measures would require more information to be tracked and would also give consumers more information.