How Much Do You Need to Know about the Food You Eat?

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Why mandatory labeling requirements for genetically modified foods leave consumers with less--not enhanced--choice


Does mandatory food labeling really help consumers? In an effort to provide consumers with full disclosure about what is in their food, many countries, including key U.S. trading partners in Europe and Asia, have adopted mandatory labeling laws for genetically modified (GM) crops such as corn and soybeans. Policymakers in the United States are under pressure from activist groups to adopt similar laws, and some public opinion polls suggest that 90 percent of Americans support mandatory GM labeling.

GM food labels were created to allow consumers to make better choices. They contain not only nutritional information, but also inherent warnings. Because the general public has had little education about GM foods, consumers generally assume that precaution is best, and avoidance the safest policy. But is this truly the wisest choice? In Thwarting Consumer Choice: The Case against Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Modified Foods (AEI Press, May 2010), law professors Gary E. Marchant and Thomas P. Redick with scientist Guy A. Cardineau, who began his career in the field of agricultural biotechnology, explain why mandatory GM labeling laws actually harm consumers by pushing genetically modified foods off the market.

The authors critically examine the arguments for and against mandatory GM labeling laws and demonstrate that the disadvantages of such requirements far outweigh the benefits:

  • Safety: Consumer safety is cited as a major concern by proponents of GM labeling laws, yet the National Academy of Sciences and other leading research institutions agree that "GM foods present no unique risks, or greater risks than non-GM foods." In fact, because GM foods are intensively tested for safety while most other foods are not, GM foods are probably safer than most foods on the market today.

  • Consumer choice: Mandatory labeling does not offer consumers a choice between GM and non-GM foods. Instead, in every jurisdiction that has adopted mandatory labeling, GM foods have been pushed off the market by requirements that are expensive, burdensome, and stigmatizing--removing the option of choice. Furthermore, the authors argue that customers who wish to avoid GM foods can do so easily by purchasing food voluntarily labeled as "organic" or non-GM. Mandatory labeling is therefore unnecessary to ensure consumer choice.

  • Public opinion: Although public opinion polls suggest that most Americans favor mandatory GM labeling in the abstract, this majority disappears when respondents learn the significant costs associated with labeling requirements. The burdens and disruptions mandatory labeling imposes on the global food trade can cost millions of dollars per year--amounting to an unjustified and unnecessary tax on the entire food distribution chain, from farmers to consumers. Taking into account the costs of labeling laws, a strong majority of Americans opposes mandatory labeling.

Marchant, Cardineau, and Redick conclude in Thwarting Consumer Choice that GM labeling laws are antithetical to the notion of consumer choice. The authors argue that mandatory labeling laws deprive consumers of the vast benefits offered by the GM food industry. GM foods are not only safe, but abundant and inexpensive. In addition, because they require less use of pesticides and fewer acres of land than conventional crops, GM foods do not overtax the environment. Mandatory labeling, stress the authors, deters investment in this burgeoning biotechnology and divests the public of important innovations, such as the production of GM foods with increased vitamin levels and reduced fat content.

For interview requests, please contact the editors directly. Gary E. Marchant can be reached at [email protected] (480.965.3246); Guy A. Cardineau at [email protected] (480.965.0434); and Thomas P. Redick at [email protected] (866.444.7529). For all other media inquiries, please contact Véronique Rodman at [email protected] (202.862.4871) or Sara Huneke at [email protected] (202.862.4870).

Gary E. Marchant is the Lincoln Professor of Emerging Technologies, Law, and Ethics at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University (ASU). He also teaches in ASU's School of Life Sciences and is the executive director of ASU's Center for Law, Science & Innovation.

Guy A. Cardineau is the Associated Students of Arizona State University (ASASU) Centennial Professor and a research professor emeritus in the Biodesign Institute, the School of Life Sciences, and the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He is also a professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Nuevo León in Mexico.

Thomas P. Redick is the principal attorney in the Global Environmental Ethics Counsel law firm in St. Louis, Missouri.


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