Study suggests new US GMO labeling law likely to have little effect on consumers

By Joseph Maina

January 18, 2022

Despite costing millions each year, the United States’ new mandatory GMO labeling law may not sway consumer choices to a significant extent, a new study suggests.

“Our results suggest that — absent extensive public information campaigns, and with the existing voluntary provision of non-GMO labels — the national GMO labeling law is unlikely to have any significant effect on consumer behavior in the short run,” the four authors state in their study, which is under peer review.

In fact, an earlier voluntary certification initiative in one US state had a greater impact on consumer choices than the mandatory labeling law, say the researchers, who include Aaron Adalja and Jura Liaukonyte from Cornell University, Emily Yucai Wang from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Xinrong Zhu from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They profiled consumer patterns in states that had adopted or were considering local mandatory labeling legislation.

“We found that that implementation of mandatory labeling in Vermont had no additional direct effect on consumer behavior,” wrote Adalja and Liaukonyte in an email to the Alliance for Science. “We do not find any additional substitution between GMO and non-GMO products when the label was implemented.”

“Instead, we find that the voluntary non-GMO label facilitated consumer substitution away from GMO products in the period of heightened information environment surrounding the policy process prior to implementation.”

The researchers assessed retail scanner data with novel non-GMO product verification data and Google Search Volume Indices (SVI) data to determine the impact of mandatory GMO labeling on consumer preferences.

Under the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which took effect Jan. 1, the US now requires mandatory bioengineered disclosure on foods containing GMOs. It became the 65th nation in the world to adopt such requirements. The US law has been estimated to cost the food industry — and ultimately consumers — $569 million to $3.6 billion the first year, with ongoing costs estimated at less at $68 million to $391 million annually.

A public policy move, such as the new mandatory labeling scheme, can have both direct and indirect effects on consumer behavior, the researchers found. On the one hand, labeling provides a direct incentive for changes in consumer preferences, while the attendant legislative process can effect indirect change by simply raising consumer awareness about the issue.

In this particular case, the researchers assessed both the direct and indirect effects of mandatory GMO labeling, premised on empirical findings across seven states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Oregon, Washington and Vermont — that had considered mandatory GMO legislation in their jurisdictions. Vermont was cited as the only state that successfully implemented GMO labeling.

Using Vermont as a case in point, the study shows that the state’s implementation of mandatory GMO labeling did not directly or additionally impact demand for GMO or non-GMO products.

The study authors concede that their study contradicts many others that have in the past alluded to decreased consumer demand for GMO products due to labeling.

“Indeed, hundreds of studies have examined the effects of labels indicating the presence or absence of GMO ingredients on consumer demand,” the authors note. “Most of these studies suggest a substantial reduction in consumer demand for GMO products following hypothetical GMO labeling.”

The study further suggests that consumer preferences may shift over time as consumers learn more about GMOs under the new regulations, citing a similar evolution in preferences observed in the organic products market over the last two decades.

Consumer awareness of GMOs spiked in the lead-up to the new federal law, attributed to publicity associated with the legislative process. An increase in adoption of products with voluntary non-GMO labels was also recorded during the period, despite the absence of mandatory GMO labeling. The authors infer that about one-third of new non-GMO product adoption is due to publicity around labeling.

The “politics and lobbying” associated with mandatory labeling schemes could be expected to play a significant role in shifting consumer behavior if they exposed consumers to more information about GMOs, Adalja and Liaukonyte noted.

Adalja and Liaukonyte believe that the Non-GMO Project  will continue to be a highly relevant label for consumers seeking to avoid food that contains GMOs. Furthermore, the Non-GMO Project verification standard aligns with international non-GMO standards of other countries, thereby ensuring its continued importance for US food producers that sell to international markets. The Non-GMO Project charges food companies a fee to place a non-GMO verified label on their product — even if no GM version of the food exists.

However, they do not expect the new US bioengineering labeling to have much of an international effect.

“Globally speaking, mandatory GMO labeling already exists quite broadly across the world in 64 countries — including nearly all of Europe and nine African countries — so the US is by no means an early adopter of this type of regulation,” Adalja and Liaukonyte wrote. “As such, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the US law has a major impact elsewhere. That said, the US GMO labeling law is notably less stringent and contains more exemptions than many other countries’ labeling laws, particularly in Europe, so in that sense we would expect that import testing and restrictions on certain US products will remain similar to the current status quo.”

Editor’s note: This article was corrected to name all four authors and change the attribution of quotes to include Jura Liaukonyte.