GMO labels' cost hard to peg

Science panel says I-522 will raise prices, but how much impossible to say

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Labeling genetically engineered foods will come at a cost, but it's impossible to say how high it will be, says a report released Wednesday by the Washington Academy of Sciences.

"The numbers just aren't there, and the numbers that are there vary widely," said Eugene Nester, emeritus professor of microbiology at the University of Washington and co-chair of the panel that examined Initiative 522 at the request of several legislative committees.

The question of cost has been a contentious one in the campaign to determine whether Washington will become the first state to implement labeling of genetically engineered, or GE, food.

Pro-labeling ads claim the measure won't raise the cost consumers pay for food. A study commissioned by the "anti" side says the annual food bill for a family of four would jump by $450.

The academy reviewed cost estimates from Oregon, where a genetically modified organism, or GMO, labeling measure failed in 2002, and California, where voters rejected a similar measure last year. They also examined the experience in Europe, where several countries require labels.

Costs and benefits

The group concluded that the cost of labeling itself will be negligible, but that food producers are likely to incur extra expenses from having to separate genetically engineered ingredients from other foods.

Washington's state budget office estimates it will cost $3.4 million over six years, or an average of $567,000 a year, to enforce and administer the labeling requirement.

"Mandatory labeling … is likely to affect trade and impose higher costs on firms producing and selling products in Washington," the panel concluded. "These costs are likely to be passed on to the consumer in higher food prices."

But the lack of any experience with labeling in the U.S. stymied the panel's attempts to zero in more precisely, said co-chair Thomas Marsh, an agricultural economist at Washington State University.

In surveys, consumers say they are willing to pay a 20 to 40 percent premium for GE-labeled foods, Marsh said. "So if you are comparing costs and benefits, if costs are higher than that, this legislation would cost the state of Washington more than it would benefit."

The panel also reviewed safety and nutritional studies of genetically engineered crops and foods, and concurred with all the other major scientific panels that have covered the same ground — including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association.

"There have been no indications that genetically modified foods are in any way unsafe, or that there have been any health problems associated with them," said Nester, who was part of the team that laid the groundwork for modern genetic engineering.

In the 1970s, he and his colleagues discovered that a microbe called Agrobacterium acts as a natural genetic engineer, inserting its DNA into the nuclei of plant cells. Today, biologists use Agrobacterium as a vector for genetic engineering, replacing the microbe's DNA with the genes they want to add to a crop. But Nester never ventured into genetic engineering himself, limiting his research to basic science.

The Washington Academy of Sciences report calls for continued safety monitoring of genetically engineered foods — and of foods created by conventional breeding methods that can also scramble a plant or animal's DNA.

Opponents pleased

Opponents of I-522 found much to like in the report.

"Key findings … support previous statements of the No on 522 campaign that the initiative would increase costs for farmers, food producers and consumers," said a statement.

Elizabeth Larter, spokeswoman for the Yes campaign, faulted the academy for citing a study bankrolled by the opposition. She also pointed out that the report lists several new GE foods that could be appearing soon in the Pacific Northwest, including salmon engineered to grow more quickly.

"I-522 would label GE salmon and give Washingtonians a … choice at the store if they want to buy and eat them or not," she said.

Robert Bates, executive director of the Washington Academy of Sciences, estimated the cost of the study at $15,000 for staff time, logistics and travel expenses. The six scientists on the panel served without pay, he said.

As of Wednesday, the No campaign had raised $18.2 million, mostly from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto and other biotech companies. The total is the most ever raised in the state to oppose an initiative.

The Yes campaign, whose biggest donor is Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, has raised just under $5 million. Donors include thousands of individuals.