Want to Avoid GM Foods? This Regulation Won’t Help

Yesterday, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee voted to expand the EU’s labelling requirement for Genetically Modified foods. The measure, in the form of a proposed regulation put forth by the European Commission last summer, will go next to the full Parliament for a final vote. The regulation has been promoted as a way to ensure that consumers have information they need to make informed choices about the food they eat. In truth, the measure will do no such thing. The Parliament should vote down the proposed regulation when it comes up in plenary session this July.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

Both the existing labelling regulation and the proposed new one only require certain categories of GM foods to be labelled. Some are subject to the labelling rules; some are not. Thus, to truly make an informed choice, shoppers must still rely upon other sources of information, including consumer-driven label statements and advertising by food producers who must battle for customer loyalty and earn their trust.

To understand why, consider the existing Novel Foods regulation that went into force in 1997. It requires any food or animal feed to be labelled if DNA or protein from a GM organism can be detected in it. In practice, this means that products like oils from GM maize or soya usually do not have to be labelled, because the heat and friction from the crushing process tends to break apart DNA chains and break down proteins into their component parts. It then is impossible to tell the difference between GM and non-GM oils.

Some see this as a flaw in the regulation, which will be remedied by the new rule that requires both labelling and traceability of GM foods. Drafted by the European Commission last summer, the proposal requires food and animal feed to be labeled if it is produced from a GM organism, regardless of whether or not it can be distinguished from conventionally produced foods. To facilitate this change in policy, seed breeders, farmers, shippers, processors, retailers, and others, will be required to keep detailed records of GM products so they can be traced all the way through the food chain.

Nearly two billion metric tons of cereal grains are grown in the world every year. And their continued affordability depends upon the commoditization process in which shippers treat all maize, all soya, and all wheat alike. To shippers, food processors and, more importantly, the human body itself, maize is maize whether it is harvested in Germany, France, or the United States, and whether it is grown from GM or conventional plants.

Segregating GMOs out of the commodity stream to comply with the traceability requirement would disrupt this efficient process, at immense cost. Moreover, perfect compliance would be impossible. Thus, the traceability provision could raise the bar to GM products so high that the market would abandon them—a point that has not escaped the notice of GM skeptics.

Of course, if the strict segregation of GM from non-GM food were necessary to protect health or the environment, such a cost might be worth bearing. But while few GM crops are planted in EU member states, foods derived from those crops are still commercially available. So while some officials may believe that GM products pose a genuine risk to consumers, most surely do not. And if informing consumers is the goal here, how do politicians explain provisions in both the current and proposed new labelling schemes that exempt an entire class of GM foods from the labelling mandate?

The distinction revolves around the seemingly innocuous phrase “produced from GM.” That is, if oil is produced from GM maize, or if tofu is produced from GM soya, then the final product is also considered to be genetically modified and must be labelled. However, foods that are “produced with” a GMO—including cheeses produced with the aid of the GM clotting agent chymosin or wines and beers produced with GM yeasts—are not considered to be genetically modified and need not be labelled, even though residues of the GMOs often remain in the final products.

Exporters of GM grains, such as those in Argentina, Canada, and the United States, have suggested that the distinction between “produced from” and “produced with” is nothing more than a thinly veiled barrier to trade, intended to protect European brewers, vintners, and cheese makers while keeping out imported grains. This may be true. It is likely that, if challenged, the World Trade Organization would find the distinction indefensible on health or environmental grounds.

But the more pervasive problem for European consumers is that they cannot rely on information provided to them by government-mandated labelling of GM foods. The only way for consumers to get full and complete information on the genetic status of the foods they buy is through the oft-maligned market.

Information has value. And like other valuable items, consumer demand can drive producers to make information available to those who genuinely want it. As we see in the case of GM foods, that information doesn’t necessarily come in the form of affirmatively labelled GM products. But it can, and does often come in the form of labelling designed to attract consumers who want certain attributes—in this case, the absence of GMOs.

Currently, there is a vibrant market for foods negatively labelled as “GMO- free” or “organic.” Because they must compete for the attention of shoppers, food packagers and groceries long ago responded to consumer demand for non-GM products—and they did so with labelling policies that are actually better at providing real consumer choice.

Few consumers actually seek out GM products. Label information about GM status is primarily used by those trying to avoid GM foods. What purchasers really want to know is whether the products in their shopping carts can be counted on to be GM-Free. Thus, negatively labelled products provide information in a form that is more useful to consumers.

Labelling advocates, including EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne and Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, argue that opposition to the labelling and traceability proposal shows great disregard for consumer needs. However, after examining the measure, it’s clear who really is trying to fool consumers. Since politically driven measures have been incapable of supplying the information shoppers truly want, perhaps the commission should defer to the consumer-driven labeling that can?