By Michael Lipsky
Published: grist.org, October 1, 2013

Next month, voters in Washington will decide whether their state will be the first in the nation to require labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients. In this debate, a key point of contention is whether food costs would rise if I-522 passes.

The opponents of the measure — Monsanto, Dupont, other agribusinesses, and many food manufacturers — assert that food costs for the average family would increase by several hundred dollars a year. Analysis of the assertion that food costs would rise reveals a great deal about the food companies and their views of the public. (It’s worth noting, as the Cry Wolf Project has documented, that business groups virtually always make the argument that costs will rise when they oppose regulatory measures.)

The claim that food costs would rise is partly based upon a commissioned study by Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants. It was prepared for the referendum on labeling in California last year, contributing to a vote rejecting by a narrow margin the labeling requirement after opponents swamped the pro-labeling forces by pouring $45 million into the campaign.

The Northbridge report concluded that costs would rise because food manufacturers would choose to substitute non-GMO ingredients for the GMO foods they currently use. Or they would reformulate their foods to avoid GMO products, resulting in increased food costs. These conclusions are echoed in the research brief prepared this year by the Washington Research Council. The council describes itself as the state’s “premier business-supported research organization.”

As the director of the Northbridge report wrote to me in an email: “a prudent risk-management strategy for food producers [would be to steer] … around the issue by using certified non-GMO ingredients or organic inputs.”

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