GMO Food Labeling. Go For It, Food Companies. Your Fear of Fear May Be Excessive.
Companies fear, and GMO opponents hope, that labels on food will scare consumers away. But more and more research indicates that isn't what happens.
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
There are a lot of pros and cons about agricultural biotechnology, AKA GMOs. Factual pros and cons about human safety (the vast majority of studies find no harm to humans) and environmental impacts (most hybrids, GMO or otherwise, do cause shifts in the ecosystems in which they grow)…and values-based pros and cons, about commercial monoagriculture and big companies profiting from modern technologies. Those are all conversations society needs to have. But one thing is getting in the way, at least in the U.S.. The fight over labeling.
GMO opponents want labels; to give consumers choice, they say, but actually to scare consumers away and kill the whole technology of manipulating genes to create plant and animal varieties with new traits. Companies that make foods resist such labels, fearful that they WILL scare consumers away.
There are many pros and cons to the labeling question alone, but one BIG question, probably the biggest of all, is; would GMO labels scare people away? Is the corporate ‘fear of fear’ (as Peter Sandman has put it), warranted? More and more evidence suggests it may not be.
1. Agricultural economist Professor Jayson Lusk at Oklahoma State University asked Might Consumers Interpret GMO Labels as a Warning Label and basically, the answer was no. Lusk and colleague Marco Constanigro of Colorado State showed one group of subjects apples labeled either “Contains GE” or “does not contain GE”, and they found;
There was no consistent statistically significant difference in the average level of concern for GMOs expressed by people shown different labels. That is, the mere presence of the GMO label did not lead to a greater level of concern about GMOs.
They showed a separate group of subjects two cereal boxes (Cheerios), one with no GMO label, and one with a label on the bottom of the front of the box stating “partially produced with genetic engineering”. And they found;
There was no statistically significant difference in the level of concern for GMOs expressed among people shown the box with the GMO label vs. the group shown the box without the GMO label.
2. But that was a ‘pretend’ study. Research by Phillip Aerni studied conditions in the real world, Switzerland, and found pretty much the same thing. Sort of.
Three types of bread were sold a street food markets across the country, labeled as made with ‘organic corn’, ‘genetically modified corn’, or ‘conventional corn’. (The recipe was the same except for the corn. The baker was the same for all of it.)
And this was in Switzerland, where the majority of the public dislikes the idea of genetically modified food, and where voters in 2005 opted to ban GMO crops from Swiss agriculture for 5 years. So you’d think, given people’s stated views, that the GMO labeled bread (one of the few foods with GM ingredients legal to sell in Switzerland, as long as it’s labeled) would scare them away. But as always, what people say in opinion surveys and what they do in the real world are different. Aerni found;
The overall response to the sales experiment suggests that the mere presence of labeled GM food is not perceived as a negative externality by Swiss consumers.
Well, sort of. When the bread was all the same price, 20% of the bread that sold was labeled “genetically modified corn”. 31% was "conventional corn". 49% had the “organic” label. Sounds like the GMO label scared shoppers away. But when the GMO labeled bread was priced 30% cheaper than the organic, the number of buyers went up to 26%. And even when the price was the same, one in four of the shoppers who bought either the organic of conventional bread also bought a loaf of the GMO bread.
The researchers varied things one other way too. First they sold only conventional and ‘organic’ corn bread. Average sales per location was 84 loaves. When they added the GMO labeled bread, and all 3 kinds of bread were the same price, average total sales rose to 125, including a bunch of GMO bread, a sales increase of 47%. The authors suggest that "when provided choice", consumers seem ready to buy GMO labeled food, which is consistent with the research on the psychology of risk perception, which has found that any risk we take voluntarily worries us less than if the risk feels imposed (i.e. NO label).
And remember that public vote to ban GMO crops? The Swiss experiment asked the bread buyers, with a questionnaire they were handed after their purchase, how they had voted on the ban. A quarter of those who voted to ban GMO crops, bought the GMO bread. In other words, what people said at the polls and what they did with their money as consumers, didn’t entirely match. Again, the behavior of consumers seems to match what the risk perception literature suggests. As Aerni put it;
The results of our field study show that the Swiss are neither scared nor upset by the presence of GM food as long as they have freedom of choice and are properly informed.
There are many caveats to these pieces of evidence. The wording of the label matters, the product and brand and price matter...even the fact that the products in Switzerland were on sale at street markets, not in regular grocery stores, matters. But these aren’t the only studies to suggest that food companies' understandable Fear of Fear may be excessive. (Not the biotech seed companies, or the farmers who grow the GM crops, but the businesses that sell the finished product to consumers that would have to bear the labels.)
In future essays, I’ll offer a few more examples, including one in which experiments sold GMO-labeled cherries (they sold quite well) in New Zealand and five European countries, and one involving the sale of GMO-labeled cooking oil in China, where the government and biotech scientists and journalists all think the public is freaked out about GM foods, but where the GMO-labeled oil has been selling just fine since 2002
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