What should be the food labeling policy?
By Mark Edelman and Barry Flinchbaugh
© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.
ME. I remember your professorial advice about keeping a file for old speeches because many policy topics seem to cycle in public discourse every few years. Food science and labeling seems to be one of those topics. Vermont policymakers reportedly have been debating a bill to require mandatory labeling of foods made with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Maine and Connecticut passed similar bills but contain a trigger clause requiring other states to pass such laws before they are enacted. Vermont's bill would have immediate impact because it doesn't have a trigger clause.
BF. My favorite line on local food labeling is it works fine until you want a chocolate covered banana for dessert. This is of course personal, since I am diabetic and have stents in my arteries. For me, sugar and saturated fat are crucial information on the label. I really do not give a damn about GMOs or Country-of-Origin-Labeling (COOL). I want labels to tell me something important to my health -- COOL and GMOs do not. The problem is everyone wants something different. Anytime we stray from a science-based health and safety standard, society falls into a quagmire with no guiding policy principle.
ME. Well the environmental movement would likely argue that point, as the movement was founded on what is known as the precautionary principle: “thou shall first, do no harm.” Those who oppose GMOs often believe there is enough scientific uncertainty to warrant different labeling treatment from nonbiotech products. In contrast, GMOs are the same in elemental make-up, have become widely adopted, and are now integrated in modern commercial agriculture without any significant health and safety issues being reported. There is extensive science-based pre-market testing for equivalent health and safety in the approval process before new GMOs are allowed into commercial channels.
BF. Right, but the question is whether public policy will move off from a bottom line standard for assuring that the healthiest, safest, and most affordable food is produced. Once you require adding information that is not scientifically based or related to health and safety, you begin to add costs and reduce access for some people who are not otherwise able to afford it at the margin. Organic and voluntary labels are fine for high-income urban professionals who want to pay higher prices for organic food or for local food. That is their choice and they are willing consumers who have ability to pay. Consumer choice and labeling alternatives are great, just don't require superfluous label information on standard labels for the cheapest food produced that meets science-based health and safety standards. If you do, then costs and risk of misinformation begin to rise as affordability erodes.
ME. Sounds like an important policy principle if we want address the growing global food needs in light of projections for a 9.5 billion world population by 2050. That would represent more than 25% growth in global population from today. Those who would deploy the precautionary principle or a food labeling campaign against GMO use in Africa and other food scarce areas of the world, fail to address the stark tradeoff between starving and malnourished populations on one hand, and increasing food production with GMO's and modernizing production practices on the other.
BF. Rhetoric about U.S. farmers feeding the world is grossly misplaced in the emerging context. U.S. farmers do have capacity to produce more food than for our own domestic consumption, so agricultural exports to consuming nations with ability to pay have become the number one U.S. trade balancer. Yes, U.S. farmers are philanthropists and often willing to help out when it comes to providing food for emergency responses to avoid acute periods and pockets of child starvation due to war or natural disaster. But fiscal deficit constrained policymakers are likely to be increasingly unwilling to cover full costs of shipping and donating food on an ongoing basis to address the chronic needs malnourished peoples in poor nations that lack infrastructure and agricultural capacity.
ME. I agree, food aid can exacerbate malnutrition in low income countries by lowering the price for locally produced food, which can lower incomes for local farmers and increase rural poverty. The 2014 Farm Bill authorized a limited shifting of some U.S. food aid dollars toward local food purchases in Local and Regional Food Aid Procurement Projects for groups working with the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. Improved local farming practices, including use of GMOs to increase food production with higher yielding, drought and insect resistant varieties, potentially represent steps to address the chronic malnutrition problems.
BF. I agree with the facts. GMO's have not resulted in any reported health or food safety issues. GMO's have reportedly resulted in yield increases of 9% to 50% depending on the use as measured in research-based performance tests where the technology is used. Therefore, those who oppose the use of GMO's must by default be in favor of allowing greater numbers of people to starve or remain malnourished around the globe. There is simply no other way out of the box.
ME. OK, let's bring the localizing food discussion home. The 2014 Farm Bill also authorized an eight state pilot project for schools to purchase local unprocessed fruits and vegetables. Extension and RC&D experts recently organized a meeting in Southeast Iowa for local food producers, grocery store managers, school cooks and institutional food buyers, and farmers' market coordinators. Grocery stores were buying more local foods and inviting farmers to the store to market produce. School cooks were using flash freezers and looking for cost-effective ways to include local foods in limited school budgets. They said the student view was local food is different and tasted better as it was not shipped long distance or pre-processed. One expert said $101 million was annually spent on food in county and added that if 10% of food purchases were local it could add $10 million to local economic multipliers from added income to local food producers.
BF. I've said nothing against consumer choice. If some farmers want to produce and market at organic standards, or voluntarily label and market branded products that have “local” or “natural” attributes in addition to the basic health and food safety standards, they are welcome to do so. Just do not make it mandatory to label and impose such standards on unwilling consumers. There is enough of hunger and diversity in this world that every kind of food system alternative can contribute. Let's calm down the zealotry and reduce the shout. It is not “either, or” it is more like “all of the above.”
* Edelman is a professor of Economics at Iowa State University and Flinchbaugh is emeritus professor of Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University.