Science Moms: The High Price of Food Labels

By Anastasia Bodnar –

If you’re like me, grocery shopping is both a pleasure and a struggle. I love to see which fresh produce and fancy cheeses are available! But meal planning is a challenge when your household contains one adventurous vegetarian (that’s me!) and two choosy eaters. Our grocery budget can get a bit out of control as I’m trying to meet each person’s needs and wants. Still, things could be a lot worse. I could be buying foods with organic or non-GMO labels.

What do organic and non-GMO labels even mean?

Farmers and manufacturers can gain organic certification if they follow certain processes related to how they grow crops and process foods. Organic is commonly touted as pesticide-free, but organic farmers have a list of pesticides they may choose from. Conventional agriculture may use any registered pesticide, and may use any approved genetically engineered crops (commonly called genetically modified organisms or GMOs). Whether you choose organic or conventional, there is no need for concern about pesticide residues, particularly for products grown in the United States.

While academics and government agencies debate the definition of GMO, for many people the meaning is simple. GMO signifies all they want to avoid about modern agriculture. That’s an unfortunate point of view, because biotechnology is simply a breeding process that can be used in any farming system. Decades of research have found the process of genetic engineering to be safe, and consumer concerns about GMOs are largely unfounded.

What does the data say?

Many people assume that organic and non-GMO foods are more expensive, but is that really the case? In the recently published The price of non-genetically modified (non-GM) food, agricultural economists Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, Jayson Lusk, and Alexandre Magnier used Nielsen product data to actually look at consumer purchasing and prices of organic and non-GMO foods from 2009 to 2016.

The researchers considered the average price premium for organic and non-GMO options in four food categories: salad and cooking oils, tortilla chips, breakfast cereal, and ice cream. Most products in the study were labeled either organic or non-GMO. Since GMOs are prohibited in organic agriculture, a non-GMO label on an organic product is redundant. However, a product can be non-GMO but not organic. Products with both labels were counted as organic for this study to avoid double-counting.

In Want non-GMO? How much more will it cost?, Jayson (one of the paper’s authors) writes: “We picked these product categories because they represent classes of products for which the potential impact of changes in the raw ingredients on the final retail price might be large (i.e., soybean or corn oil for which the supply is primarily GMO) to small (i.e., ice cream where the value share of GMO crops and their derivatives (e.g. corn syrup) is probably less than 5%).”

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