UC Davis Agricultural and Resource Economics

John Bovay, University of Connecticut

GMO Food Labels in the United States: Economic Implications of the New Law

Date and Location

Thursday, May 18, 2017, 4:10 PM - 5:30 PM
ARE Library Conference Room, 4101 Social Sciences and Humanities


Various consumer groups and NGOs have argued for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods in the United States, most often on the grounds of consumers’ “right to know” what is in their food. However, many economists and others oppose mandatory labels, arguing that the scientific evidence demonstrates that genetic engineering poses no inherent threat or risks to human or animal health or to the environment, while bringing substantial benefits to producers and consumers, and contributing to improved global food security, resource conservation, and the environment; and furthermore, a market solution has emerged in the form of voluntary labels for non-GE food.
    These arguments notwithstanding, in July 2016, the U.S. Congress passed Senate Bill 764, which requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a national disclosure standard for GE foods. The legislation also preempted states from setting their own standards for mandatory GE labels, and immediately nullified a state law to mandate GE labels in Vermont, which had entered force earlier that month. Several other states had passed similar laws that had not yet come into effect; a patchwork of conflicting state requirements was expected to ensue and the new law also prevented this from happening.
    In this paper we first review the economic history of the political and policy processes that gave rise to the 2016 passage of S. 764, paying some attention to economic and scientific evidence and arguments, the role of NGOs and the media in promoting mandatory labeling policies, and the role of the food industry as an intermediary between consumers and farm producers, which has sought (at least at times) to serve the interests of each. Next we discuss the implementation of the new law and its expected economic consequences, compared with both the previous regime, prior to the passage of S. 764, and also with the alternative future regime that the new law pre-empted, with a patchwork of potentially more onerous state regulations.

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