LONDON, Ohio — Foods with labels indicating they were made with genetically modified ingredients are coming soon to a grocery store near you. But what are the implications of GMO labeling for the parts of the food industry that the public seldom sees?
“There has been a lot of discussion in the media about whether GMO labels are a good idea or a bad idea,” said Matt Roberts, agricultural economist for the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.
“But the truth is more complicated, because, as economists, we need to know the costs and benefits. And one of the things that really hasn’t been discussed well anywhere is what are the impacts of labeling on the food system?”
Roberts will oversee a panel discussion on the issue, “GMO Labeling and the U.S. Food System,” at 10-11 a.m. Sept. 20 at Farm Science Review.
The Review is an annual trade show at the Molly Caren Agricultural Center in London, Ohio, about 25 miles west of Columbus. The college runs the Caren center and sponsors the Review, which is Sept. 20-22 this year.
The GMO issue has gained more attention in recent weeks as Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed legislation requiring most food labels to indicate — with text, a symbol or a QR code readable by smartphone — whether the food contains GMO ingredients. The U.S. Department of Agriculture now has two years to write the rules that will put the legislation into effect.
The federal law pre-empts a Vermont state law passed in 2014, which would have taken effect in July. Advocates of the Vermont law have cried foul over the federal legislation, as the state law was more stringent and would have required such items be more clearly labeled with specific wording, “produced with genetic engineering.”
Adding to the debate is the growing popularity of voluntary labels verifying that a food does not contain GMO ingredients.
“All the evidence is that these products are in every way equivalent for consumers and are nearly indistinguishable from each other,” Roberts said. “But consumers really care about GMO labeling. It’s happening.”
Panelists during the discussion will be Ian Sheldon, Andersons Chair of Agricultural Marketing at Ohio State; Ken Foster, professor and head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University; and Andy Vollmar, food and feed ingredient manager of The Andersons Grain Group.
The agricultural economics-focused panel discussion has become an annual event at the Review, held in the Tobin Building on Beef Street on the west side of the Review grounds.
Roberts said the effects of GMO labeling could ripple throughout the food production and distribution systems.
“What does a national GMO labeling standard mean for changes in crops that are being planted?” he said. “If we see an increase in demand for non-GMO crops, what does that do to the marketing channel — storage and transportation — in segregating GMO and non-GMO crops? Are there differences in implications on the food chain between labels that say ‘contains GMOs’ versus a ‘non-GMO’ label?”
Roberts hopes the discussion provides food for thought for farmers, journalists, legislators and policymakers.
“I would like everyone to come away with a better understanding of the subtle costs — the potentially large costs — involved with GMO labeling,” Roberts said. “We do have markets for non-GMO crops, they do exist, but they are a very small part of the overall market. So what happens if in a very short time period we rapidly expand that? Is this something that is relatively easy and well understood, or will this create a lot of dislocation?”
Implications include logistics in the segregation of GMO and non-GMO food items, he said — “all of that end-to-end processing that is almost a black box to consumers. People know that it exists, we know that crops are grown and they show up a little while later on our store shelves, but everything in between is pretty opaque.
“What I would like to do is shed a little light on what GMO labeling can do to these intermediate steps.”
The panel discussion is included with admission to the Review, which is $7 in advance, $10 at the gate, and free for children 5 and younger. Attendees can also browse among more than 600 exhibitors displaying more than 4,000 product lines. Free wagon shuttles from the west end of the Review’s main grounds take visitors to presentations at the nearby Gwynne Conservation Area and field demonstrations of harvesting and other equipment.
Organizers expect total attendance to top 110,000. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 20-21 and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 22. Details are at fsr.osu.edu.