Monday, 1 October 2012

Survey says more than three quarters intend to vote "yes" on California Prop 37 GE labeling proposal

According to a new poll (.pdf) conducted during September 20-27 in California, 76.8% of respondents would vote "yes" on Prop 37 -- calling for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.

This estimate is much higher than I would have expected.  The survey report, by Jayson L. Lusk and Brandon McFadden from Oklahoma State University, has several interesting features. (Lusk keeps a lively blog, where he discussed U.S. Food Policy's earlier post on Prop 37.)

First, among those intending to vote "yes," 71% said their motivation had to do with the right to know what is in their food, while 16% listed food safety concerns.  It is reassuring that comparatively few respondents listed food safety concerns.  In my opinion, food safety concerns are not the most sound reason for supporting biotech labeling.

Second, the survey included some sharp questions about whether people would still favor mandatory labeling even if it made food more expensive.  Sensibly, fewer than half of respondents would support mandatory labeling if it led to price increases of more than 12%.  That would be a very large price increase!  More than half of respondents would still support Prop 37 if there were smaller price increases.  To me, although the median price point seems high, this again suggests that the respondents perceived the essentials of the economic tradeoffs implied by the proposition.

To put the price increase issue in perspective, Dan Sumner and Julian Alston recently estimated (.pdf) that Prop 37 could lead to $1.2 billion in new costs on California food manufacturers for labeling, segregation, and monitoring.  (Sumner and Alston served as my hosts and mentors during a terrific sabbatical year at the University of California in 2010-2011, though nobody should assume they endorse or are to blame for any opinions offered in this blog!).  I suspect that Sumner and Alston's cost estimates imply a food price increase far smaller than 12%.

Here is one more very interesting thing about Sumner and Alston's paper.  They believe that mandatory labeling "would reduce choices by driving some food products containing GE ingredients from the market."  In this view, the label would influence manufacturing methods, and many food manufacturers would use a label that says "made without GE ingredients."  Their colleague at UC Davis, Colin Carter, believes that many food manufacturers would find it impossible to source non-GE ingredients and that most conventional (non-organic) food would be labeled "may contain GE ingredients."

Another important finding from Lusk and McFadden's report is that many consumers do not understand which foods contain GE products.  I think that if Prop 37 passes (a) GE-free foods will be labeled GE-free, (b) foods that contain GE ingredients will be labeled "may contain GE ingredients" and (c) consumers will be much better informed.

In my view, the strongest case against Prop 37 is subtle.  If consumers care about genetic engineering, then voluntary GE labeling should be widely promoted.  But, if government scientists are not persuaded that GE foods are dangerous, then one could argue that the government should not make GE labeling mandatory.

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