Labeling GMOs

In my post What’s in a label?, I argued against mandatory labeling for specific details of crops, farming methods, etc. that don’t pose a health risk, such as Kosher, “contains animal-derived ingredients”, GMO, and rBST. However, I argue in favor of any additional labels that a grower or manufacturer might want to provide, even when they go against science and may do more harm than good. In a free market, so as long as claims are true, additional labels should be allowed.
The rBST labeling saga is a good example of both how labeling should and should not work.
Quick primer: rBST stands for recombinant Bovine Somatotropin. BST is a hormone produced in the pituitary gland of all cows. rBST is identical to BST but is produced with the aid of biotechnology. Use of the hormone causes cows to produce more milk on less food with less waste than an untreated cow – in other words, it makes the cows more efficient. Cows that produce such large amounts of milk, however, have increased incidence of mastitis, a painful udder condition. rBST treated cows may have higher incidence of other health problems. There is some debate about whether use of rBST significantly increases levels of IGF-1 (insulin like growth factor 1) in the milk and whether IGF-1 can contribute to cancer in humans. All milk contains IGF-1 so the key word here really is significantly – there is no detectable difference in the milk from rBST treated and un-treated cows.
Some people want to avoid milk from rBST treated cows. No matter their reasons for avoiding it, they have a right to ask producers to label and producers have a right to do what their customers ask. When some producers started placing an “rBST-free” label on their products, they were met with strong opposition from Monsanto, the producer of rBST at the time, and from some farmers using rBST.
It is easy to understand why a company would want to prevent such a label. If consumers get the impression that milk from cows not treated with rBST is better, then more and more farmers will stop using rBST, so the producers of rBST will loose money. Farmers who find success with rBST might not want to be pressured to stop using it.
It is also easy to understand arguments against labeling based on avoidance of consumer confusion. If there is no scientific evidence of difference, then labels are potentially inappropriate, and could lead to consumers being scared into buying more expensive products and loosing confidence in products that don’t have the label.

Milk cap posted on Action Institute PowerBlog by Jordan Ballor in a post about rBST labeling.

The key is to have a label that satisfies customers who want them, that doesn’t put a burden on customers who don’t care about the label, that is truthful, and that doesn’t cause consumer confusion.
A label that says “hormone free” is false because all milk contains hormones. Similarly, a “BST-free” label is false. Such a label might cause consumer confusion. It may eventually put a burden of increased cost on consumers who don’t care about rBST because using rBST lowers the cost of milk – but this consequence of consumer demand may be seen as acceptable in a free market.
Eventually, after various court cases, the standard is a label that says something the one in this picture: “From cows not treated with rBGH. No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBGH treated and non-rBGH treated cows.” I’m sure there’s a better way to word the disclaimer, but at least it’s accurate. It avoids the problems of being untruthful and does not cause confusion (more information is better than less). There’s still a few straggling court cases, but this is likely to become the standard in the US.
The Non-GMO Project has stepped in to fill consumer demand for labeling of genetically engineered crops, as described in the NY Times ‘Non-GMO’ Seal Identifies Foods Mostly Biotech-Free. In the interests of freedom of choice, and as a consumer that enjoys choice, I applaud their efforts. However, does the simple “Non-GMO” label meet the standards?
Labeling of products containing ingredients derived from biotech crops is very similar to the rBGH labeling situation. I’ll restate: the key is to have a label that satisfies customers who want them, that doesn’t put a burden on customers who don’t care about the label, that is truthful, and that doesn’t cause consumer confusion.
Many consumers want the label (or at least enough to convince the Non-GMO Project’s founders that their venture is worth the cost). It doesn’t put a burden on consumers that don’t care about the label in the sense that the label isn’t mandatory, but if such a label becomes very desirable to consumers, more and more producers will avoid ingredients derived from biotech crops, which could lead to an increase in food prices (as is currently happening in Britain, according to The Independent article Big stores counting the cost of ban on GM food h/t Ethicurean), but again, this may be seen as acceptable in a free market.
The label will cause consumer confusion in that it doesn’t make any qualifying statement about the quality of the food – it implies that label means a better product, when there is no scientifically significant difference between foods that have been genetically modified and those that have not (depending, of course on the particular modification). A “Non-GMO” label is relatively truthful, but leaves out a lot. It depends greatly on an individual consumer’s understanding of what GMO means. For example, when I tell people about chemical and radiation induced mutagenesis, which is allowed in organic farming, they are invariably shocked. Some people don’t even realize that plants have DNA! The idea of a “non-GMO” crop held by most people does not match reality.
“GMO-free” or “non-GMO” labels are just not good enough. I’m not a policy expert, so won’t suggest what language should be added to these labels to help make them more appropriate, but I know enough to suggest that something needs to be added.
For now, it seems that any standardized recommendations for labeling are stalled. From the Codex Alimentarius FAQs:

Is it true that the labelling of GM food is going to be cancelled?

There are presently no Codex provisions for the labelling of GM foods except in the case of possible allergic reactions. The work on finding an international consensus on how to proceed with the labelling of GM Food has proven difficult because of quite opposed opinions in the world. As there has been no consensus for some time some countries suggested stopping this work but others would like to continue so the discussion continues. International consensus is not an easy thing! For further information please read reports of the Committee on Food Labelling.

For a summary of some points involved in potentially labeling foods that contain ingredients derived from biotechnology, see Debatepedia: Mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. I just found Debatepedia as I was finishing this post, and it looks really interesting!