GM Food Labels Could Burden Low-Income Consumers

Consumers have paid significantly higher prices for non-GM foods compared with conventional counterparts in four categories, a new analysis shows.

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Mandatory labels for genetically modified foods sold in the United States are imminent under a law signed two years ago by President Obama — though the details of how and when the new rules will go into effect remain unclear. In some cases, logos, symbols, or quick-response codes printed on packages could convey the product’s status as genetically modified or not genetically modified. Alternatively, shoppers could get similar information by visiting a website or dialing a 1-800 phone number. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is set to release a rollout plan this summer.

A new GMO labeling law will be implemented soon. A recent study suggests that could mean a price hike for some foods — and a pinch on low-income families’ budgets.

Visual: CT Senate Democrats/Flickr/CC

For all the lingering question marks surrounding implementation, however, a new study suggests one potential outcome of the new labeling regime is straightforward: If manufacturers choose to switch to non-GM ingredients in order to dodge any stigma among consumers, the cost of food is likely to rise — and the price hike could prove more burdensome for low-income people and those who mainly eat at home.

The finding is based on a statistical analysis of U.S. retail price data from 2009 to 2016 on more than 10,000 non-GM, organic, and conventional food products. (Per the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s classification system, food labeled organic is non-GMO, so the researchers included products with either of those designations.) The study involved laboriously tracing the incremental costs for each ingredient in each product in order to pin down the factors causing the price changes in goods.

Compared with conventional versions of ice cream, breakfast cereal, tortilla chips, and cooking and salad oils, consumers paid a non-GM price premium of 10 percent, 26 percent, 24 percent, and 62 percent, respectively, according to the study, which was published March 21 in the journal Food Policy. These figures are at least 10 times higher than some previous estimates of the impact of mandatory GM labeling, the researchers wrote.

Less processed foods or products with a relatively high share of source crops tended to have the heftiest price premiums. This could have a significant impact on the budgets of lower-income consumers, who are more likely than higher-income consumers to buy ingredients for cooking meals at home, the researchers wrote.

“Because lower-income people tend to buy foods with less added value, if those foods are disproportionately more expensive, as we found, then obviously the people who buy them are disproportionately affected by the incremental costs,” says study leader Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri.

This impact on consumers has not been considered by researchers and policymakers, but it should be, he adds. Instead, much of the debate on GM foods and labeling in the U.S. and Europe has dealt with unfounded human health concerns. No strong evidence to date has shown that GM foods are any less safe than non-GM foods. In 2012, the board of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a statement opposing mandatory labeling.

The new research was funded by the United Soybean Board, an industry-funded program that represents farmers who grow conventional, non-GM and/or organic soybeans and supports research on the crop. The Board influenced neither how the study was performed nor the analysis, Kalaitzandonakes says.

The price premiums were stable over the eight-year period studied, he says, which suggests that consumers felt the price hike consistently even as more non-GM and organic food was sold in markets over time. So, increasing volume did not result in lower costs or price premiums.

If most manufacturers of products that currently contain GM ingredients choose simply to add the label rather than to reformulate their product with more expensive non-GM ingredients, consumers would likely see less of a hike in food costs once the law is fully in place.

In any case, Kalaitzandonakes favors plurality in the marketplace.

“Consumers should have the opportunity to go to the market and vote with their wallets, and if consumers choose to buy more organic foods and they choose to buy more non-GM foods, you will see many more of those in the marketplace, because food suppliers want to supply those,” he says. “They want to be in a profitable business.”

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8 comments / Join the Discussion

    What? “(Per the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s classification system, food labeled organic is non-GMO, so the researchers included products with either of those designations.)” Big difference here. Organic is non-GMO,however non-GMO is not necessarily Organic, big price point difference!

    Dr. Brian Moench said >No mention of the significantly increased exposure to pesticides used with GMO crops–red flag number three. The article mentions that, “the board of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a statement opposing mandatory labeling,” and no mention of the AAAS being under the extremely bias wing of the extremely self serving biotech industry–red flag number four.”YOU ARE WHAT YOUR GRANDPARENTS INHALED. YOUR GRANDCHILDREN WILL BE WHAT YOU INHALE.<

    https://www.weber.edu/WSUImages/environment/Brian%20Moench%20-%20physician.pdf

    Are you suggesting they should stop buying meat, dairy, breads, flours and meals, and cooking oils? All of those are equally affected in price by going non-gmo. Also affected are squash, apples, and, soon, bananas.

    This is only a surprise to anyone who was getting their information from ill-informed label activists funded by the organic industry. We saw this happening in real time in Vermont when their label law was about to drop. But in their mind that’s a feature, not a bug.

    We told you this was going to happen. And the loathsome “let them eat kale” crowd was particularly tone deaf to the real consequences for the poor. And they are still doing it.

    If you have philosophical problems with food, it should be treated like Kosher and the 3rd party labels should handle it. We cannot burden the poor and senior citizens with your food fetishes. If you have unfounded aversions to some kind of food or food prep, you can pay for that. Stop forcing it on everyone else.

    Let’s see, the study was funded by Big Ag–red flag number one. This article claims,”No strong evidence to date has shown that GM foods are any less safe than non-GM foods.”–red flag number two. No mention of the significantly increased exposure to pesticides used with GMO crops–red flag number three. The article mentions that, “the board of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a statement opposing mandatory labeling,” and no mention of the AAAS being under the extremely bias wing of the extremely self serving biotech industry–red flag number four. It all adds up to complete BS.

    “Compared with conventional versions . . . consumers paid a non-GM price premium . . . ”

    Since when is GMO food conventional? I would say that there is nothing normal about adding shrimp genes to papayas, cloning cows, or altering genes in a lab.

    Correct labeling is the only fair thing to do. If food companies being required to tell the whole truth results with them changing ingredients, a great outcome. It is not difficult to eat a good and proper non GMO organic food. Lose the chips and ice cream diet. The four food groups to some are syrup, candy, soda and fatty foods. The market will continue to serve even them, while the rest of us pay for the resulting obesity and illness caused by inorganic garbage.
    As far as the sustain ability of our environment goes, along with our vital pollinators is concerned, we are losing fast. The real problem is Monsanto, Bayer and the rest of their like.

    This is little more than illogical PR firm propaganda thinly veiled in a wisp of gossamer smoke which might be described as science.

    The “finding is based on a statistical analysis” “tracing the incremental costs for each ingredient in each product in order to pin down the factors causing the price changes in goods” out of the thousands of other factors that better explain such changes.
    In other words, it’s a rumor that means nothing concrete or actionable in reality. Just a hail mary hoping to catch people who are not paying attention.

    This funded by people who have a return on their investment as their main goal of existence rather than any concern at all for poor people beyond how they can manipulate them toward fulfilling their promises to those who pay them who must themselves fulfil promises they made to their shareholders. I don’t think the concerns of poor people are talked about in shareholder meetings.

    If you don’t have enough money for food, stop buying ice cream, breakfast cereal, tortilla chips, and oils. All of that is junk food that’s going to cost you much more money down the line in health care costs.

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