Labeling GM food may clear economic jam for farmers

February 17, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO - As the rest of the world continues to reject genetically modified (GM) foods, American farmers might look to government-mandated labels as their ticket back into the global market.

Lydia Zepeda, an associate professor of consumer science for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, draws that conclusion in an analysis of the current GM-food market. Zepeda is part of a forum examining the public sector's role in biotechnology at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting Sunday, Feb. 18, in San Francisco.

In recent years, American corn and soybean farmers have taken a beating due to the changing rules of the global market, Zepeda says. In 1999 alone, farmers lost $300 million in overseas sales of unwanted genetically modified corn, primarily from getting shut out of the European market. Zepeda says that loss more than surpasses the cost savings farmers saw from reduced pesticide applications, the primary advantage of planting Bt corn.

At the same time, Zepeda says another interesting pattern is occurring: Organic sales are soaring, in large part because of the demand from U.S. consumers for foods free of genetically modified organisms. Organic milk sales were up 75 percent in 1999, and the demand for organic soybeans is so high the U.S. is now importing them from China, one of its largest export markets non-organic U.S. soybeans.

What Zepeda sees in the collision of these two trends is the need for a uniform domestic labeling policy that matches the international standards already in place. Labeling is also a domestic market issue, as studies by scientists indicate that anywhere from 82 percent to 93 percent of American consumers want GM foods labeled.

"Because agriculture is such a big commodity for trade, it would be helpful for farmers to have consistent, internationally understood labels," Zepeda says. "It's an information issue. Any time you don't have agreed-upon standards, it's very costly."

Legislation to require labeling of GM foods has been introduced in Congress and some state legislatures. The need for clear labeling policies has been highlighted by the recent controversy over Starlink corn, which showed up in the food supply despite not being approved for human consumption. The political pressure for labeling will continue to press, Zepeda says, as long as the uncertainty over health implications exists.

The FDA takes a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to labeling, she says. In 1992, the agency identified potential health risks of GM foods, including the transfer of genes from common allergens such as peanuts, fish, eggs and wheat. The agency also raised questions about what impact animal feed with genetically enhanced Bt toxin would have on domestic animals and the use of antibiotic resistance markers in the manufacture of GM foods.

But the organization has followed a self-policing policy toward labeling, leaving it up to industry. Zepeda says one of the most sensible options regarding GM foods is for the FDA to drop its self-policing policy and create hard-and-fast guidelines about when and how foods should be labeled.

Interestingly, the counter-strike labels "GMO free" have been showing up consistently in organic foods. A major political battle recently ended in the US Department of Agriculture declaring that genetically modified foods could not carry the label "organic."

"Organic really has to do with growing practices, so this decision was a very interesting political development," Zepeda says. "What it did was allow organic food to be the proxy for GM-free labeling. That is clearly one of the reasons why organic sales are skyrocketing."

Ironically, Zepeda says labeling might actually increase consumer acceptance of GM foods. Zepeda did a number of studies of consumer responses to bovine growth hormone labeling of dairy products in the mid-1990s. Her finding was the very existence of these labels lowered consumer apprehensions about the technology, even when it didn't change their consumer behavior.

"The mere fact that labels are there changes consumers' perception of risk from one that is involuntary to one that is voluntary," she says. "The labels made consumers perceive less risk, and made some even more likely to buy the BGH milk."

Until the United States, through either the FDA or new laws, creates a standard for GM food labeling, Zepeda argues that the mainstream farmer will continue to suffer with shrinking markets and a devalued product.

"Once you have a label that's assured by a government agency, there's a lot of trust in that," she says. "Some agreed-upon standard will end up enhancing consumer confidence."
NOTE TO PHOTO EDITORS: A high-resolution image of Lydia Zepeda may be downloaded at:

-- Brian Mattmiller, (608) 262-9772,

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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