Reason Roundup

Mandatory GMO Disclosure Doesn't Sway Shopping Habits (But Will Drive Up Costs)

Plus: Questioning paranoia about smartphones and attention spans, new small business creation is thriving, and more...


Consumers shrug at mandatory GMO labeling. Beginning this year, federal food-labeling laws require products made with genetically modified ingredients to carry a label saying they are "bioengineered." But short of requiring extra work and costs for food makers and manufacturers, the law is likely to lead to little change.

Research suggests that consumers won't alter their behavior based on mandatory disclosure of genetically modified organism (GMO) food products.

"In the presence of existing voluntary non-GMO labels, mandatory labeling did not have any additional effect on demand," wrote researchers from Cornell University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in a November 2021 paper. "Our findings suggest that voluntary non-GMO labels may already provide an efficient disclosure mechanism without mandatory GMO labels."

Looking at legislative consideration of GMO labeling in several states and the adoption of such labeling in Vermont, the authors found that public discussion of GMO labeling increased awareness of the issue and may have steered consumers toward products voluntarily labeled as non-GMO. "Heightened consumer awareness" was found to have "increased adoption of products with voluntary non-GMO labels, even absent actual implementation of mandatory GMO labeling," they noted.

"Contrary to previous studies that indicated the mandatory labels for products made with bioengineered food would herald big swings in consumer preferences and buying, this new study shows a more muted effect," points out Megan Poinski at Food Dive. "What did motivate consumers to change behavior was news about GMO food."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has admitted that new federal regulations mandating the labeling of bioengineered food—passed in 2016 under former President Barack Obama and finalized by the Trump administration—may be useless. It "is not expected to have any benefits to human health or the environment," the USDA said in 2018.

The changes are costly, however. "USDA estimates that the costs of the proposed [mandatory labeling] would range from $598 million to $3.5 billion for the first year, with ongoing annual costs of between $114 million and $225 million," it said. ("So not only are the new regulations useless, implementing them will jack up food prices for consumers," as Reason's Ron Bailey pointed out).

Food policy writer Baylen Linnekin has long been warning of the ways in which the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act "is a bad law, and likely unworkable." The labeling requirements themselves are confusing:

Under the final rule, a food producer marketing a food that is genetically modified (GMO) or that contains GMO ingredients may comply with the rules in any one (or more) of four ways: 1) by clear wording on a food label; 2) by using the USDA's new symbol "BE" to designate that it is bioengineered food; 3) via a QR code printed on a food label; or 4) by giving the consumer the option to send a text message to the manufacturer seeking more information.

Besides, there's no evidence that "bioengineered" food is anything consumers should be concerned about.

"The move is universally confounding food safety advocate groups," The Washington Post reports. "Eating bioengineered foods poses no risk to human health, according to the National Academy of Sciences and the Food and Drug Administration."

"Critics say the rules devised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will actually confuse consumers further and make it harder to know what's in any given product," notes NPR.  "One advocacy group [the Center for Food Safety] has even sued the USDA to try to block the new regulations from taking effect."

Among other complaints, the ongoing lawsuit objects to manufacturers not being able to use the more widely-known term GMO, instead of bioengineered. It also objects to the fact that many foods made with bioengineered ingredients may be left out.

The USDA defines bioengineered food as "a food that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro rDNA techniques and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature." Foods made with genetically modified material that isn't detectable in the final product aren't considered bioengineered foods, it says.

The bottom line: Voluntary labeling of non-GMO products was working, providing consumers who—for whatever reason—wanted to know that sort of thing with the information they desired and allowing manufacturers who wanted to use non-GMO status as a marketing tool to do so. But since the federal government stepped in, the whole process has become more costly and confusing with seemingly no consumer benefit.


Questioning paranoia about smartphones and attention spans. Journalist Matthew Sweet explores some of the cherry-picked examples and logical fallacies in Stolen Focus, a new book by Johann Hari about diminishing attention spans. (You can read the whole thread on Twitter, starting here.) One example: Hari cites a study about smartphones and distraction and draws some serious conclusions from it:

But not only was the study not the most rigorous (it "was commissioned by the authors of a business self-help book called The Plateau Effect" and is not peer-reviewed, Sweet points out), Hari also leaves out some vital information about how the study was set up. "The distracting messages mentioned were sent by the experimenters, and the subjects were told they contained important information about the test," Sweet points out. "They HAD to respond. So it tells you very little – nothing, I would suggest—about the ordinary seductions of the smartphone."


New small business creation is thriving. "We're now entering year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the U.S. economy is still struggling thanks to inflation, supply chain issues, and continually bad jobs numbers. However, small business creation has been an unexpected economic bright spot since the pandemic began," notes Reason's Fiona Harrigan:

In 2021 (excluding data for December, which the U.S. Census Bureau has not yet released), an average of around 452,000 new business applications were filed monthly. That's a significant increase compared to 2019, when an average of roughly 293,000 new business applications were filed each month. Those numbers dipped in March and April 2020 before catapulting to over 550,000 in July 2020 and remaining above 2019 levels through the end of the year.

The 2021 data look especially promising because new businesses tend to hire employees. From January 2021 through the end of Q3, 1.4 million applications were filed to form businesses likely to hire workers, more than any other comparable recorded period.


• On this day in 2015, terrorists killed 12 people in an attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo. See Reason's coverage here.

• Chicago schools are still closed, as the city's leadership and teachers union fight over in-person learning.

• A judge this week ruled that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott doesn't have the authority to prevent local governments in the state from imposing their own mask mandates.

• Hormonal birth control is now available without a prescription in Illinois. "This legislation covers self-administered hormonal contraceptive methods — birth control pills, skin patches, and vaginal rings — which were previously available only with a prescription from a physician," notes Chicago magazine.

Perpetually truth-challenged and sex work–obsessed pundit Nicholas Kristof can't run for governor of Oregon because he hasn't lived in the state long enough, officials say. On Thursday, "Secretary of State Shemia Fagan announced that her office was rejecting Kristof's bid to run for office, because he does not meet the state's three-year residency requirement," reports Oregon Public Broadcasting. "That decision is likely just the start of a legal fight that will be decided by the courts."

• Encrypted messaging app Signal's crypto payments feature has gone global.

• "Add swim diapers to the list of issues that can get turned into a federal case," writes Ron Hurtibise in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. In a new federal lawsuit, "a Florida family is suing their condo board over what they say is a rule barring children from using the community pool while wearing swim diapers."

• "The feminist rejection of diet culture can, at times, shift to a rejection of the whole concept of health itself, or at least of the idea that it's probably a good thing to pursue health," points out feminist author Jill Filipovic, in a Substack post calling for both a rejection of unhealthy dieting obsessions but also an understanding that "it does actually matter what we eat — to ourselves, to our bodies, to our souls, to our cultures, and to our planet."