UVM study: GMO labels increase consumer confidence

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, speaks to a rally of citizens, who support the labelling of genetically modified foods, outside the State House in Montpelier on Thursday. VPIRG gathered more than 30,000 petition signatures over the summer urging the Vermont Senate to follow the House of Representatives lead and pass a bill mandating the the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

BURLINGTON — If information is power, it’s also a source of anxiety relief for Vermont consumers who may be wary about genetically engineered food, according to a recent study at the University of Vermont. The study found that consumer attitudes toward GMO food products actually improved after mandatory labeling in Vermont compared to the rest of the United States. “While there were assertions that a simple disclosure would act as a warning and scare consumers, we found that not to be the case. A label should be neutral; a source of information,” said Jane Kolodinsky, an applied economist in UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who led the study published in Science Advances. Vermont is the only state in the U.S. to have implemented a mandatory labeling policy on GMO food ingredients after years of lobbying. The policy has been in effect since July 2016. The study is the first to examine the impact of consumer attitudes toward genetically modified foods in a state where GMO labels are the law. While some companies and scientific organizations have fought mandatory GMO product labeling as stoking consumer fears and anxiety, Kolodinsky says that simple disclosure appears have had the opposite effect. “We found that compared to the rest of the U.S., when faced with simple mandatory disclosure labels, consumer opposition fell by 19 percent,” she said. “The law in Vermont required ‘produced or partially produced using genetic engineering’ to be on the label.” Nationwide, the 10 GMO crops on the market today include alfalfa, apples, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets. These crops have been biologically modified to express genetic traits that improve their resiliency against insects, discoloration and certain diseases. In corn, for example, genetic modification increases both insect resistance and herbicide and drought tolerance, according to GMOAnswers.com. Some food manufacturers, including General Mills and Campbell Soup Company, voluntarily label GMO food products, citing consumer demand for transparency. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released draft regulations that seek a narrower definition of genetic engineering and alternatives to labeling disclosures. The draft rules also propose changing labeling language from GMO to the less commonly used “bioengineered” or “BE.” Kolodinsky has been tracking consumer attitudes toward genetically modified products since 2003. In her latest work, with co-author Jayson Lusk, of Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, the study analyzed the attitudes of over 7,800 consumers from 2014-17. Participants ranked their feelings toward GMO food using a 1 to 5 scale. “When controlling for demographic factors, opposition to genetic engineering fell significantly in Vermont after mandatory labeling, whereas opposition continued to increase nationwide,” Kolodinsky said. Although Kolodinsky said she cannot say what factors shaped negative consumer attitudes toward GMO food products, “what I can say is that opposition to the technology has been increasing over time across the country. The change in consumer attitudes with mandatory labeling is “striking,” she said, particularly in a state that has been “such a hot bed for GMO opposition.” For GMO skeptic Cat Buxton, of Food Systems Consulting, which advocates for positive soil and food change in Vermont, “It's a good thing to have the labels-are-a-scare-tactic play that industry pushed so hard refuted.” Still, there are “concerning discrepancies” in the UVM research paper, she added. “We all know that the ‘mandatory labels in Vermont’ referenced in the paper were never truly implemented, having been almost immediately pre-empted by the still-not enforced federal law requiring national labels,” Buxton said. “Some manufacturers printed labels to comply with the Vermont law, but only for a short period of time. And the researchers actually asked a different question in Vermont than in the rest of the country, according to their paper. I find that problematic,” she said. Buxton said she has “far more confidence in the 20 years of national surveys cited showing that Americans are concerned about genetically engineered foods and want to have transparency in food labels with actual words on the package informing consumers of what we are buying and feeding our families.” She said the “deceptive quality” of the proposed BE label, and the "redefined meaning on bioengineered food to exclude other GMO technology, falls well short of what American consumers have been asking for.” “Beyond the safety-to-humans factor, which is disputable still, the environmental and social impacts of bioengineered crops remain my biggest concern with these products. The proposed labels offer 'transparency' through deceptive labels. This is not a solution at all, in my opinion, and does not serve public health concerns, which go well beyond the genetics,” Buxton said.

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