Study: GM food labels do not act as a warning to consumers
There is an economic and political battle taking place in America over the labelling of GM foods. In 2015, 19 US states considered GM food labelling legislation and three states, Connecticut, Maine and Vermont have passed mandatory GM labelling laws.
The US House on July 23 passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling bill (HR 1599), which will move to the Senate and, if passed, will prohibit both state-level legislation regarding GM labels and the labeling of products that contain GM ingredients.
Proponents of HR 1599 argue that GM labels will act as a warning. Another reason people oppose labelling is that they say scientific evidence has shown GM foods are safe.
Opponents of this legislation call it the DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act. Food and biotechnology companies reported more than US$60 million in anti-GM labeling lobby expenditures in 2014, almost three times what was spent in 2013.
As an applied economist who studies the economics of information and consumer choice, I wondered what the evidence was regarding the labels-as-warnings argument.
It turned out that there is scant, if any scientific evidence to show that GM food labels will act as warning labels. Surveys of people in Vermont show that people are unlikely to see GMO labels as an indicator of a dangerous or inferior product. And for some people, the label can actually build trust in the technology.
The Vermont situation
In the US, there have been only two published studies about whether GM labels will serve as warning labels. Neither study provides strong evidence that GM labels will signal a warning to consumers.
A 2014 study on GMO labelling concluded, "any (negative) signaling effects, should they exist, are likely to be small." Another in 2008 found that labels are likely to affect consumers' views toward GM-labeled food with the caveat that their results are based on consumer beliefs that a labelling law is in effect, not whether they support such a law or the existence of a law.
In Vermont, where a GM labelling law will go into effect in July 2016, we have been collecting information from citizens for over 15 years about their attitudes, beliefs and intentions toward GM technology and products derived from it. We have five years of data (2003, 2004, 2008, 2014 and 2015) where questions about both support for and opposition to GM were asked. We also have information on whether and what kind of labelling citizens prefer.
These questions were asked as part of the annual Vermonter Poll administered by the University of Vermont's Center for Rural Studies.
The Vermonter Poll is a representative statewide poll that includes questions about a variety of issues important to consumers, ranging from employment and health care to agriculture and community development.
We analyzed the data from 2,102 respondents to better understand whether labels change people's preferences toward GM foods or whether they provide information which provides a basis for choosing products to purchase.
Labels help consumers make choices. In some products, consumers cannot determine whether a product contains an attribute or quality they prefer by looking or handling it, which is the case with GM foods. Research shows it is for these kinds of goods that labels play a more important role in choice.....
The argument over GM food has been dominated, in recent years, by a debate over food labels — specifically, whether those labels should reveal the presence of GMOs....