GMO Labeling in Vermont: Retailer Experience, Data Dispute Cost Concerns

by J.D. Thomason

While many large media outlets have described Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling initiative as a “controversial” move, independent research indicates that no fewer than 64 countries containing over 40% of the world’s population have been labeling genetically modified foods for over a decade prompting some to ask, What’s so controversial about GMO labeling?

Some out of state wholesalers have raised concerns over costs, saying that, if Vermont implements mandatory labeling, they will be forced to suspend delivering certain goods. According to a 2015 article published by TraceGains, an organization echoing the concerns of corporate opponents to GMO labeling said, “The overall costs to implement such a system would be very expensive and this will ultimately trickle down to consumer’s pockets, with prices increasing in grocery stores.” A Fox News article parroted the same warning that the costs would negatively impact consumers but, like the TraceGains article, provided no numbers to verify the claim.

Locally, in a recent Associated Press article, Ray Bouffard, owner of Georgia Market in Georgia Vermont, is quoted as saying: “As a retailer, there’s all sorts of ways that this could backfire on us as a state, and a small independent guy like myself if I’ve got nothing on my shelves or I’ve got limited (supply) and my competitors have no problem with the staying power, we’re done.”

But other small retailers in Vermont have welcomed mandatory GMO labeling. Pat Hayes and his wife Kirsten, owners and operators of Wood Meadow Market in Enosburg Falls, Vermont specialize in organic, non-GMO foods. As retailers they welcome mandatory labeling saying “I think it’s a great idea. Somebody had to take the lead.” Pat is not only the owner/operator of a small, independent grocery store; he is a retired farmer himself and has, since 2001, supported organic, non-GMO farming practices. With the Hayes’ background both in organic farming and now, as a retailer, they maintain “people have a right to know what’s in their food.”

Pay and Kirsten Hayes, owners of Wood Meadow Market in Enosburg Falls. Credit: J.D. Thomason

Pay and Kirsten Hayes, owners of Wood Meadow Market in Enosburg Falls.
Credit: J.D. Thomason

“I’m applauding Vermont” Pat says and “I was happy to see [the Vermont Senate] take the initiative – but a lot of the food industry didn’t want to see this go through.” Kirsten Hayes reiterated their perspective as small, independent retailers: “We have customers that come in and ask, ‘Is this GMO free?’” she said. “We had a woman that wanted a special corn flour, and she was very concerned if it was GMO free. I had to go on the company’s website to learn they are very committed to using only GMO free in their products.”

A closer look at national sales data reinforces the Hayes’ experience, showing that consumers are actually willing to spend more for non-GMO foods if necessary. According to a report featured in the Wall Street Journal, non-GMO food sales have increased over 28% between 2013-2014. This data indicates that the increase in sales and revenues would more than offset the costs of changing labels disputing the fears of some that GMO labeling will hurt business. In addition, 61% of those polled say they prefer to know if the foods they are buying are GMO free and over half of them insist they would not by genetically modified products.

The Consumers Union, the policy and action division of Consumer Reports, published an independent study conducted by Dr. Andrew Dyke and Robert Whelan with ECONorthwest that disputes the “too costly” claim. The report shows that the increased costs of GMO labeling would only add up to as little as $2.30 per year and perhaps as much as 1 cent per day.

While Vermont may once again be pioneering legislation in the US, Vermont is not the first developed society to insist on GMO labeling. The entire European Union, which is home to six of the world’s ten healthiest nations, have adopted GMO labeling requirements since 2004. But in the US, many companies insist that changing labels is simply too costly. Monsanto, Dupont, PepsiCo, Coca Cola, Nestle, General Mills, Kellogg’s and others have been amongst the companies to devote significant financial resources to opposing GMO labeling. In total, it is estimated that these groups have invested almost $30million in lobbying efforts to stop GMO labeling in California alone. This figured, when compared to estimated costs of changing labels, prompts some to wonder who is doing the math at the corporate level. What’s more, many of these vocal opponents to GMO labeling in the US already label their GM foods for overseas export. The real concern at the corporate level, it appears, is that consumers don’t want GMOs and that ultimately, the entire large-scale corporate farming and production process will have to be overhauled leaving out stockholders and returning questions of farming practices, food safety and consumer choice back over to farmers and consumers.