Art Carden  

Can Labeling Compound Erroneous Beliefs?

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I've been keeping an eye on social media chatter about laws in some states that would mandate labeling for products containing genetically modified organisms. I'm not a biologist or a food scientist, but my understanding of the scientific consensus is that GMOs aren't harmful (I've been following the University of Florida's Kevin Folta on Twitter for coverage and commentary).

This looks like a situation in which mandatory labeling can make information problems even worse by compounding erroneous beliefs. This looks like a campaign to place warning labels on essentially safe products that capitalizes on the fact that "Genetically Modified Organisms" just sounds scary. While it looks like a public-interest campaign based on an innocuous right to know, I don't think we should be naive about what these initiatives stand to do to the demand for non-GMO products.

Speaking of which, this is an information "problem" the market is already solving. There is a huge market for organic and non-GMO foods, and the infrastructure is already there for labeling and certification of organic/non-GMO foods. At best, mandatory "contains GMOs" labels are superfluous.

At worst, though, they compound erroneous beliefs. Again, "genetically modified organism" elicits visions of mad scientists creating unholy creatures in secret labs and plays to our innate fear of technology. I suspect that most people upon seeing a "contains GMOs" warning label will infer "this must be bad for me." That's a tragedy given that, as I understand it, GMO crops are perfectly safe. In a world where chronic hunger is still a problem, it's especially tragic.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Michael Margolis writes:

Even putting aside the intrinsic scariness of images -- which is equally a problem with voluntary labels -- the fact that the government is requiring a label leads to the logical inference that government experts think the feature described is important for our health. Certainly, I take the list of nutrients on mandatory labels to indicate the judgment of USDA experts about what is important in my diet.

Like you, I am no expert, but I think you misstate the scientific consensus when you say "GMOs aren't harmful". Rather, it is that there is no persuasive evidence of harm. There was also none for cigarettes in 1940, but they were already harmful. We have not yet had the chance to follow GMO eaters through a normal lifespan. And I seem to recall Richard Lewontin arguing that DNA splicing technique do have some potential to damage genes in dangerous ways. So I would not be sure that a good expert committee would not conclude some warning is warranted.

But until this happens, mandatory labels would be misinformation, for they seem to imply it has happened.

BC writes:

Good point on the labeling of non-GMO foods. The fact that non-GMO food producers are already not prevented from labeling their products as non-GMO makes it unnecessary to require that GMO producers label their foods as such. Why impose requirements (on GMO) if not imposing restrictions (on non-GMO) is enough?

Yaakov writes:

I do not think an evaluation of the safety of GMOs is relevant. There may be a very large sector of the population who do not want to consume GMOs regardless of safety, possibly due to religious beliefs. The issue here is as with all other labeling: the only way to determine whether information is required is through the market. If the labeling that something is GMU free, sugar free, Kosher, or has any other such quality, is important to consumers, they will require it and will be willing to pay the additional price of the labeling. If the number of consumers requiring the labeling goes up, the cost of the labeling decreases until it becomes negligible. If those lobbying for mandatory labeling were able to convince a large sector of consumers that GMO is dangerous, the cost of labeling for GMOs would go down drastically in no time.

The example of tap water, at least here in Israel, is instructive. The cost of avoiding drinking tap water is high, and the dangers very low, but still many people are willing to pay the price. It is unimaginable that GMOs would be considered more dangerous than tap water and the cost of labeling "GMO free" would still be meaningful. Therefore, only when the risks are very low would anybody bother to lobby for mandatory labeling.

John Hall writes:

The left is pro-science until science is pro-business.

It might make sense to put a label on all foods saying: "ALL FOODS ARE GENETICALLY-MODIFIED YOU MORONS!"

BTW, I recently stopped buying Smart-Beat margarine after it added "no-GMOs" to the label.

hanmeng writes:

On a related note, WalMart has long since stopped selling rBST milk under its own Great Value brand, even though no one has even proven rBST poses any health risk. I don't know to what extent WalMart's decision discouraged the use of rBST, but at the time the opponents declared this was a huge victory.

Nathan W writes:

If it's so safe then it shouldn't be too hard for them to convince people that there is no health hazard. If half the country thinks they should be able to know whether it's GMO then they should be able to. They might even be willing to pay a premium for GMO-free. What could be the harm in that?

John writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for rudeness. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I'm a big fan of calorie labeling, especially for fast food. I wish the market would provide it, but it really takes government to force calories on the menu, and shatter the dreams of those who like the "Bloomin' Onion" @ 2,710 calories.

On the other hand, the FDA regulations on labeling fat content of grocery food products likely lead many people to over consume carbohydrates, and become even fatter / sicker / etc.

Hazel Meade writes:

@Michael Margolis,

It's not just that there isn't any persuasive evidence of harm, it's that there is no theoretical reason for believing there would be. After all humans have been altering the DNA of the food we eat for millenia. GMOs are just altered using a different technique. The technique itself does not leave any alteration in the food, especially not several plant generations later when the altered seeds become food crops.

The supposition that GMOs would be uniquely harmful in a way different from conventional cross-breeding is somewhat like believing that your health is affected by whether you great-great-grandmother got knocked up in Paris or Berlin.

Michael Margolis writes:

@Hazel Meade,

That is generally my understanding as well. Richard Lewontin's speculation (mentioned in my prior comment) is the only exception I have encountered, but given that he is a biologist and I am not it is enough to leave me less than entirely confident in my own judgment of what experts would say should they convene. For whatever my judgment is worth, I think you are right.

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