Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Costs of GMO Labeling

There has been much discussion over whether or not the labeling of "GMO" foods would add to the cost of food production or not. This was one of the supporting arguments for GMO labeling at the legislative hearing at the Maryland House of Delegates Committee on Health and Government Operations during which Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Michael Hansen of the Center for Food Safety, both insisted that labeling costs would be minor at best.

So does Mother Jones

So does The Grist

Wow, do these scientists and journalists have any understanding of the food supply chain from farm gate to grocery shelf?

Apparently not, nor does anyone else who thinks that "GMO" labeling won't increase the cost of food.

Here is my pictorial analysis of the food supply chain from my farm gate:

Seed corn is ordered and delivered to farm, then planted in the spring around May.
By summer, it looks like this.
By fall, it looks like this.


It gets harvested between September and November.


Corn is transferred from the combine to a tractor trailer truck.




The grain is hauled here to our on-farm grain bins for storage.
We have storage for about 50,000 bushels, less than 25% of our total
yields in a normal year for corn, soybeans, wheat and barley, all of which need
to be stored until they're needed by our customers. This includes the specialty seeds we grow
that require segregation from commodity grains.


When its time to sell, we reload the trucks and haul it to the local grain elevators.
The tractor trailer delivers the corn here


Or here

Or here


And that's just 3 of the local grain elevators. We have several other options depending on who is buying our grain. We and all our farming neighbors deliver to the same elevator and unload grain. This is called "commingling" where our crop is combined with everyone else who delivers to the same elevator and stored together in these large bins, regardless of what variety or trait of corn was grown.

So where's the cost you ask? Well, every farmer in the region is hauling grain usually around the same time... to the same group of elevators. Hopefully you read my blog on seed choice last year and realize that all farmers determine their own purchases for seed and we don't all grow the same thing. In fact, we grow 3-4 different varieties of corn ourselves. Why? Because we match the varieties of corn to our soil types. That's called good stewardship and good business practice.

The food supply chain in the United States relies on a system of commingling, grain delivered to the elevator by farmers throughout the region. Maryland has 2 million acres of farmland, nearly a half million of which grew corn in 2012. In a not very good growing year, Maryland farmers produce 53 million bushels of corn.

If GMO labeling were to pass, that would require a HUGE addition to both on and off farm storage. Nationally, we're talking billions of dollars in infrastructure needed to segregate grain. What none of these labeling laws is clear about either is how to achieve this segregation? Should it be segregated by trait? by variety? both? The more layers of segregation, the more infrastructure is required and the more the costs escalate. 

Segregation is costly. We know because we do it every year, year in and year out, and have for years. We do it because we get paid a premium for ensuring that the specialty grains and seeds we grow are "identity preserved", very much like the certified organic process, involving higher management, higher tracking, and systems in place to ensure that the grains and seeds are genetically consistent and true to their traits, of highest quality meaning they are uniform in size, shape, color, free of weed seed and contamination. We will have 900 acres of grains and seeds this year that will require some protocol for identity preservation. They will be tested for the presence of GMO and tested to ensure that they are genetically consistent to parent seeds. This requires us to use some of our grain tanks for segregation. It requires us to do more "housekeeping", cleaning equipment, trucks, trailers, planters, harvesters, grain bins, etc... all along the food supply chain to ensure that we have preserved the identity of that crop. It is an inherently more costly system.

So what are the costs? Here is my rudimentary analysis from the USDA Crop Production 2013 Summary

There is 13 billion bushels of on farm storage in the United States.

There is 10.4 Billion bushels of off farm storage in the United States.

Last year, U.S. Farmers grew the following crops ALL of which require storage:
  • 13.9 billion bushels of corn
  • 389 million bushels of sorghum
  • 421 million bushels of rice
  • 3.3 billion bushels of soybeans
  • 2.1 billion bushels of wheat
  • 215 million bushels of barley
  • 1 million bushels of oats
  • 7.6 million bushels of rye
  • 18 million bushels of millet
  • 3 million bushels of flax seed
  • 7.8 million bushels of safflower
  • 1 million bushels of canola
  • 65 million bushels of sunflower
  • 38 million bushels of rapeseed and mustard seed
  • 301 million bushels of lentils
  • 937 million bushels of dry peas
  • 250 million bushels of peanuts
  • 1.5 Billion bushels of other dry edible beans including:
      • light red kidney
      • dark red kidney
      • Great Northern
      • baby limas
      • large limas
      • pinto beans
      • small white
      • navy beans

So 2013 produced roughly 23.5 billion bushels of 26 different grains and seeds, including those already in some form of identity preservation protocol, and have storage capacity of 23.6 billion bushels... without the extra infrastructure to segregate "GMO" from "nonGMO". To segregate, additional infrastructure would be required along the entire food supply chain from farm gate to grain elevator to processor to manufacturer, in order to separate corn, soybeans, and canola. 

A new grain bin cost approximately $2/bushel to buy and install, so a 50,000 bushel bin will cost $100,000. If we currently have sufficient storage for commingled grains and seeds, what will be the astronomical figure to segregate them by trait? That answer is dependent on how we are going to segregate.  In order to have true traceability, GMO seeds and grains would have to be segregated by trait, so RoundUp ready traited grains would have to be segregated from Bt traited grains, and the stacked or combined traited grains would have to be segregated from those that are just Bt or just RoundUp Ready, and the combinations of traited grains would have to be segregated by the combination or stack of traits in the seeds too, because otherwise, you don't have "truth in labeling" to say which GMO is in the product. 

I mean surely, we need to label it by GMO trait right? because otherwise "we don't know". This is the premise by which the activists say is the problem right? The uncertainty of GMO? We can't commingle traited seeds and grains because then we no longer have true traceability. Absolute and utter segregation by trait or combination thereof is required to meet the demands of what is being called for in the GMO labeling legislation across the U.S.

True GMO labeling will require vast capitalization of infrastructure to segregate grains and seeds by trait. (Read $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$).

And I've only been talking about the costs of grain storage.  I can't even begin the fathom the costs that it would take to segregate all along the entire food supply chain, keeping GMO corn, soybean or canola ingredients segregated by trait from conventional counterparts from the farm to the processor to manufacturer. We're talking billions of dollars in order to maintain the absolute traceability of a certain genetic trait in a seed from farm to final product. 

Those who say GMO labeling won't add to the consumer's grocery bill need to go back to Economics 101 and some basic high school math. 

True traceability in our food supply system will be hugely expensive.

Its likely that as a nation, we'd never capitalize all that infrastructure to achieve true traceability.

Which goes to the crux of the matter -  this isn't about labeling, as I cited in my last GMO blog, labeling is a means to an end. As noted by many activist groups, the ulterior motive behind labeling is not about a consumer's right to know, it is about banning the technology. 

Say NO to mandatory GMO labeling. Stand for science.











26 comments:

  1. Wow! This post certainly gives some perspective to the situation! The numbers are beyond comprehension. When you then begin to consider the rest of the food chain, the complexities are mind-blowing.
    Have the proponents of labeling given any thought to the scope of their grand idea? I think not.
    Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Barbara, I had someone tweet me that labeling was done in fluid milk so therefore it would be easy to do. rBST labeling in milk has no comparison because first of all its voluntary and there is no testing or segregation. You can't test for rBST because its no different than BST the body naturally produces. Voluntary labeling for milk means that farmers sign a pledge not to use it, not that there is any segregation protocols or testing for detection of its presence. Voluntary labeling for GMO already exists through the nonGMO label initiatives and would be far more cost effective to label it this manner than to utterly change the whole food supply system. Its naive for folks to think that this is just a matter of "labeling" without recognizing the impact and disruptive nature it will create in the supply. It really does reinforce my point that this is not about a consumer's right to know, its about doing away with a highly valuable technology that has been beneficial in both food and medicine (insulin is ONLY available as rDNA technology produced as are numerous other cancer and lifesaving treatments) Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Delete
    2. Sorry my other response was so angry, but I really thought you were some big GMO employee trying to trick people. Now that I see this you comparing insulin to GMO food, I feel like I need to point out that there's a huge difference between offering someone an apple to eat that looks like it came out of the garden of eden and offering somebody a modern marvel of science in a syringe. I think the apple has a greater potential to fool a person.

      Delete
  2. I like the fact that many, many more jobs will be created through the de-construction of mega-farms. I much prefer the scope of this grand idea to the scope of moving armies in and out of countries.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. From USDA "Most U.S. farms—98 percent in 2007—are family operations, and even the largest farms are predominantly family run. Large-scale family farms and nonfamily farms account for 12 percent of U.S farms but 84 percent of the value of production. In contrast, small family farms make up most of the U.S. farm count but produce a modest share of farm output. Small farms are less profitable than large-scale farms, on average, and their operator households tend to rely on off-farm income for their livelihood. Generally speaking, farm operator households cannot be characterized as low-income when both farm and off-farm income are considered. Nevertheless, limited-resource farms still exist and account for 3 to 12 percent of family farms, depending on how “limited-resource” is defined."


      Ref: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib-economic-information-bulletin/eib66.aspx#.U0am-PldVzY

      Delete
    2. I'm sorry, now you feel like I'm spamming your blog, but there's so much that needs to be responded to. Nobody wants a few small groups of people to be super profitable. We want many more people to have a chance to be somewhat profitable. Farmers have an education, right? What's wrong with a small scale farmer teaching an agriculture class a couple of times a week? Bigger was supposed to be better because it was supposed to eliminate hunger (that's right, I didn't say reduce, I said eliminate). People are still starving and you're talking about profits. You seem to understand something about logistics, and instead of trying to figure out how to fund transporting the 40 percent of food that's wasted to the people who need it (perhaps though well marketed specialty non gmo products) you're sharing statistics about profits with somebody saying they weren't interested in the food industry having a profit based architecture. I have to go now because if I keep on reading your site you'll have so many comments from me that it will be our site.

      Delete
  3. Replies
    1. Ur welcome :) Just my perspective from the seat of my tractor!

      Delete
  4. Jennie - thanks heaps for taking the time to document some of the true costs that the "right to know" lobby wants to impose on consumers. I'm happy to see you already have a well-deserved pat on the back from Prof. Kevin Folta.

    When we see such a "movement" promoting regulations that don't make sense - that's a good time to ask "who benefits?" If we follow the incentives we find there are a number of special-interests who are funding this campaign. David Tribe framed the smelly bedfellows as Big Quacka and Big Organic.

    A concept from Public Choice economics that helps us understand how these hidden interests operate is called "Bootleggers and Baptists". In your GMO labeling case the Bootleggers include Whole Foods and trial lawyers. Back in the CA Prop 37 fight I wrote a few posts on this concept, such as How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor and Scott Andes: Why California’s GMO Labeling Proposition Should be Defeated.

    The key idea is that the Bootleggers have learned that the best media reception is obtained by fronting the Baptists, preferably worried-looking moms holding their beautiful babies.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wow, if this is the extent of the modern farmer's comprehension and problem solving skills I really understand why you guys are being replaced by machines and slaves. Nobody is asking you to provide GMO free products and nobody is asking you to label traits. I understand that you're trying to confuse and fool people that you think are stupid, but traits hardly even counts as technobable and you're not fooling anyone. We don't want to segregate the food chain. We want the current food chain to remain exactly as it is, and label itself. Nobody wants anything from you. We just want to know it's coming from you. Once we know its your product, we can avoid you and only do business with the new competitors who pop up to do the job you refuse to do. I see what you're doing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I realized you probably signed a few contracts to get where you are today and now I feel bad :(

      Delete
    2. Thanks, I will share all your thoughts with my 84 year old father in law who built this family farm. So if profit is a bad thing, does that mean you are on welfare? Otherwise, if our farm doesn't make a profit, how do I pay my electric and heat and rent and car payment and clothe my kids and pay for their school field trips and 4H projects, put gas in my car and food in the fridge? I assume you work somewhere where you bring home a paycheck and yet your insinuating that I shouldn't do the same because I'm a farmer. Interesting double standard.

      The point of my blog was to illustrate the logistics and infrastructure of our food supply system because "experts" from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, and other activist groups testified before the legislature that there would be minimal costs. There would be anything but minimal costs with the labeling our legislature was calling for.

      Delete
    3. Typical boring anti-sense comment of a vague, non-transparent and obviously some how 'void of science,' thought process made by an individual whose legal name is obviously not Crush Bowers. Thank you, but your nonsense opinion is all things I personally don't need. You speak for yourself buddy.

      Delete
    4. Bowser actually does have a valid point in that by you making the error of taking pro-labeling advocates seriously at their word you have arrived at a strawman position. In other words, if labeling advocates really meant what they say, they should want exactly the segregationist regime you describe but they do not mean what they say (or, at least, they have not thought it through).

      In truth, labeling advocates just want a scary label and "right to know" and similar justifications are just a pretense to arrive at that. They really do not care about what is in their food and instead consider GMO to be a thing, in and of itself, and they consider that thing to be some sort of vital force corrupting metaphysical substance. What the traits actually are and what they may actually do to composition (which, other than the trait in question, is much less than the effects from varietal differences & from differing growing conditions) does not matter to them. All they want is a simple "GMO" or "no GMO" label (preferably prominent and with scary disclaimers) which might require changes in the supply chain but not changes that need to be as profound as what you describe.

      Delete
  6. My thought process is not opaque. I'm very clear about what I"m saying. I don't know how blogspot works, but it seems like the part where I said "farmers should be valued for their work instead of being seeing as comepletley interchangeable parts of a machine" was edited out by the blogstress. That's not too transparent.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Great job, Jennie. I raise this issue when I talk about the costs of mandatory process based labeling, but you provided the actual farm-based data!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Nobody forced you to grow GM Crops, which represent a departure from a trajectory than began 3.5 billion years ago of evolutionary development.

    They are essentially different from crops obtained through conventional breeding methods and contrary to the biotech industry claims (seed companies purchased by chemical corporations desiring to augment the use of their pesticides in the marketplace) , their safety has not been demonstrated.

    In fact, the motivating factor is "The Patent", linking the seed to the company's own agro-chemicals.

    NO proven benefits have been forthcoming via the use of GM crops and the incidence of severe gastrointestinal disorders has greatly increased since their introduction.

    They constitute a gigantic fraud perpetrated through the compliance of the governmental agencies charged with overseeing the public interest. (Manipulating governments is the only thing the industry does well. It's manipulation of genomes has failed, and signifies a grave threat to the environment and public health).

    ReplyDelete
  9. So your theory of no benefits that the millions of acres of biotech crops plants by family farms like us means we are either very stupid or puppets? None of the things you cite are substantiated by science

    ReplyDelete
  10. Untested? Really now, I guess the fda REQUIREMENTS of 10 years of safety studies BEFORE any gm products are approved for marketing is imaginary? Or are you confused because non gm crops undergo no safety testing, even if they're exposed to radiation or mutagenic chemicals to produce the desired traits? Also plant varieties made by the latter methods (mutation by chemical or radiation) are routinely grown on organic farms (organic refers to farming method, though no transgenic crops are allowed), with UNTESTED herbicides and pesticides (yes organic certified pest and weed control have never been tested for safety to humans or the environment). There are over 2000 peer reviewed scientific papers, both industry funded and independent saying gm is safe, and not a single one saying otherwise. Do some actual research not just read articles confirming your beliefs, and assume they don't have an agenda. Hint in 2013 whole foods made more in profits than the often demonized monsanto, yet one is accused of being unbiased and the other accused of "buying off scientists". That's called cognitive dissonance.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I think that farmers who are growing non-GMO corn or soy are selling it to the highest bidders. Which puts the rest of the crops in the GMO category. So it is or it isn't. Basically, I want to see farmers do well, but I also want to see consumers (me included) know if they are eating altered foods or those with pesticides that are known to cause problems down the road. As a person with multiple food allergies and liver cancer in the family, I need to know.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Marriet writes:
    «I think that farmers who are growing non-GMO corn or soy are selling it to the highest bidders. Which puts the rest of the crops in the GMO category. So it is or it isn't.»
    In other words, you are telling us that these foods are already voluntarily labeled as "organic".

    ReplyDelete
  13. The easiest thing to do would be to ban GMO seed as well as Roundup brand weed killer until there are studies that prove or demonstrate the harm or safety of these products. Real scientific studies whose data are not manipulated by a large industrial biochemical company.

    The European Union banned the use of GMO seeds 14 years ago and it has not hurt their production one bit. The use of engineered seeds, special weedkillers, and bovine growth hormones adds tremendously to the farmer's cost to produce food to the point where it is not profitable and the farm is swallowed up to become a factory farm that destroys the soil and environment.

    Large industrial chemical companies create intolerable situations for smaller farmers as well as poison the food supply.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Food chain: 1) local organic farmer grows food, 2) you go to local farmers' market & buy it, 3) done.
    This ridiculous practice of transporting food halfway or more around the world (& creating an unnecessary carbon footprint) has got to stop. By the time those products get to you, many of their nutrients are diminished or mostly gone. People with food allergies can easily read a label & determine if a particular product may be of risk to them. Whether or not a product contains GMO's should also be listed.
    When a Monsanto exec basically says that labeling products as GMO is tantamount to putting a skull & crossbones on the product, perhaps you should stop & think more seriously about what, exactly, you are eating. And is it true that Monsanto employees only have organic foods in their cafeterias? If so, again, if THEY, the creators of GMO's won't eat GMO's, should you?
    Look at the Seralini study. GMO proponents tried to discredit it, but it has passed peer-review, AGAIN. There is not enough info about the long-term effects of GMO feeding to cows, let alone to humans. Glyphosate (ie, Round-Up) has shown up in breast milk & urine samples & may be implicated in celiac disease. Glyphosate does NOT wash off your non-organic produce & who knows how much is in our water supplies.
    The need for increased supply chain infrastructure is a win for American, local businesses. If they build it, organic & heirloom farmers will come & use it to ensure the lack of contamination with GMO’s & that seed lines stay intact so that their product does not diminish in value.
    And if you’re so very concerned about costs of GMO labeling, then perhaps you should remember that China (bastion of safe food that it isn’t) keeps refusing GMO corn & other food shipments, to the tune of BILLIONS of dollars in cost.
    Stop growing crap & put the money into growing organic, sustainable, healthy, nutritious food at a local level that doesn’t kill off the bees & other pollinators. And gee, if you ban GMO’s, the need to segregate them will be much less expensive. :P

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Christine, the ability to research claims and supply evidence capable of supporting it is certainly an admired skill and one we hope many people today are building. One thing to consider when doing research is to make sure your source is reputable and to consider counter-arguments. Concerning reputability the Seralini study was retracted by Elsevier due to the fact that there fell extremely short when it came to providing statistical significance, not to mention as a comparison study they failed to compare their experimental groups. The breast milk "study" holds significantly less water than that. It comes from an anti-GMO group for starters. Not to say they cannot be right, but it's important to take this fact into account. As far as glyphosate the chemical? It's not fat soluble. Period. Breast milk is highly fatty, how would this be absorbed into breast milk? Simply? In can't. I encourage you to read more and never quit being skeptical but also be thorough.

      Your Friendly Science Teacher

      Delete
    2. Not if farmers and Americans in general say NO to Monsanto, grow traditional seeds and stop poisoning us.

      Delete
  15. Thanks for the excellent information posted here! Please keep sharing the information like this.

    Agriculture and Farming discussion forum

    ReplyDelete