Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Will Washington do it again?

Last year, Washington State became the first (jointly with Colorado) to legalise marijuana. They did it through an election in which 81% of those eligible voted. While the proposal was radical in an historic sense, the war on drugs has become something of an embarrassment even to the US authorities, and with respected newspapers like the Economist advocating legalisation then perhaps it was only a matter of time.

Another year, another interesting ballot proposal in Washington. This time it is to require labels that acknowledge the presence of GMOs in food which is already nutritionally labelled. The vote is next week, on Guy Fawkes day.

Unlike the marijuana issue, this time there are seriously annoyed corporates opposing the move. They have collectively tipped in over $20m of campaign funding. If you want a sense of how pervasive GMOs are in those United States, read the list of contributors and their brands.

Those promoting the move are characterising it as a fight between locals (consumers & farmers) vs big out-of-state business, and their myth-busting fact sheet(pdf) gives an insight into the way the the issues are being presented to voters. Samples myths include:

  • Trial Lawyers Will Sue Farmers If It Passes
  • Shoppers Will Pay More For Groceries
  • It Would Cost Taxpayers Millions 
From an economic standpoint, the benefits of GMO labelling come from giving consumers relevant information, which is a basic requirement for market efficiency. Offsetting those benefits, the direct costs of GMO labelling are surely quite low. Food manufacturers often change their labels so if you allow a reasonable transition time to GMO labelling it'd be hard to argue with the idea on a direct cost basis.

I doubt that the GMO sellers are genuinely afraid of the direct costs. Its the indirect costs that will scare them. These will come from the market reactions of better-informed consumers who try to avoid food with GMO content. Oh, and don't forget the slippery slope: if this gets up in Washington it could break the spell and other states might do the same thing.

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