Published Date Written by David CarkhuffLikening their effort to a “David and Goliath”-style struggle for consumer rights, advocates of a Maine bill to identify foods with genetically modified organisms as ingredients crowded into the State House Wednesday to push for GMO labeling of foods.
“We’re up against a giant,” said Ben Pratt, a former Democratic state legislator from Eddington, who called himself a “citizen lobbyist.” Pratt, who served on the Agriculture Committee in the Legislature, joined dozens of other citizens in supporting LD 718, An Act to Protect Maine Food Consumers’ Right to Know About Genetically Engineered Food and Seed Stock.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, requires a label reading “Produced with Genetic Engineering” on foods consisting of or containing a genetically modified organism.
The Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry received public testimony on the bill during a hearing in Augusta.
“The scientific uncertainty surrounding GMOs is a good reason for the state to require labeling,” Harvell said in a press release from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “Consumers have a right to know what they are eating and to make informed choices about the health risks they take with products that are not subject to federal safety testing.”
“Five main GM commodity crops — corn, soy, cotton, sugar beets and canola — have byproducts, such as high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, vegetable oil and canola oil, in an estimated 75 percent of processed foods sold in grocery stores,” according to MOFGA (www.mofga.org), the oldest and largest state organic organization in the country.
Pratt said legislators have grappled with the GMO issue before, but this time he said Harvell’s bill takes a different tack.
“It’s just the label, that’s all we’re looking for, just the right to know what’s in our food,” he said.
The bill’s language includes a provision that teams Maine up with other like-minded states.
“The Commissioner of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry shall monitor legislative activities in other states and certify to the Secretary of State and the Revisor of Statutes when legislation substantially similar to this Act has been adopted in at least 5 other states or in a state or states with a population or combined population of at least 20,000,000,” LD 718 reads.
“The best thing about this bill is the five-state trigger that goes along with it,” Pratt said. “What we’re saying is Maine has a history of leading the pack and Maine has a history of passing laws that end up as federal laws. ... (But) we’re trying to give these companies some leeway, saying, ‘OK, we understand that Maine is a small market, we understand that we’re not necessarily asking you to retool everything you do right now, but it’s coming. It’s coming down the road.’”
In March, a rider included in federal spending bill HR 933 was signed by President Obama, igniting an uproar. The rider requires the Agriculture Department to approve the growing, harvesting and selling of genetically modified crops, news outlets reported. “Opponents have termed the language in question the ‘Monsanto Protection Act,’ a nod to the major agricultural biotech corporation and other like firms geared at producing genetically modified organisms (GMO) and genetically engineered (GE) seeds and crops. The provision protects genetically modified seeds from litigation suits over health risks posed by the crops’ consumption,” CBS News reported.
“It’s amazing what money spent in Washington and in Augusta can do,” Pratt said when asked about Obama’s action on HR 933.
In the past, Monsanto sent a lobbyist to Maine to defeat legislation here, Pratt said.
Monsanto Company, according to its website (http://monsanto.mediaroom.com), “is a leading global provider of technology-based solutions and agricultural products that improve farm productivity and food quality.”
In a section devoted to the GMO issue, Monsanto reported on its website, “Hundreds of millions of meals containing food from GM crops have been consumed. There has not been a single substantiated instance of illness or harm associated with GM crops.”
The company opposes labeling efforts, however, stating, “Within the United States, the government has established clear guidance with respect to labeling food products containing GM ingredients; we support this approach. We also support food companies’ choices to voluntarily label food products noting certain attributes (e.g., organic) based on their customers’ preferences and provided the labeling is truthful and not misleading. We oppose current initiatives to mandate labeling of ingredients developed from GM seeds in the absence of any demonstrated risks. Such mandatory labeling could imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts.”
Citing a recent study, Heather Spalding, interim executive director of MOFGA, stated in a press release, “Ninety-one percent of Maine people support a labeling requirement disclosing genetically modified ingredients in their food. Members of the committee should respect the wishes of their constituents and support this bill.”
Maine is one of 37 U.S. states considering GMO labeling bills in 2013, including every New England state, according to MOFGA.
“We’re just trying to get ahead of the curve,” Pratt said.
Meara Smith of Unity, formerly co-owner of Local Sprouts cooperative in Portland, said she now works on a farm and attended Tuesday’s gathering at the Capitol to voice her feelings about GMOs.
“We’re saying that the people of Maine should be protected and have the right to know what’s in their food,” she said.
Arguing that GMO technology can’t be trusted, Smith said, “It’s not stable, it’s really dangerous, it’s unsafe for people.”
The problem, Pratt acknowledged, is that GMO foods are widespread.
“They say right now that upwards of 70 to 80 percent of any processed food you buy in a grocery store has GMO in it,” he said.
“We’re focusing on the consumer’s right to know,” Pratt emphasized, saying labeling efforts have gained traction in other parts of the world.
“It’s done in Europe, it’s done in 30 other countries around the globe who have said, ‘OK, there’s enough question out there that we have a responsibility to the consumers of this country to label.’ And that’s what we’re doing here.”
Monsanto points out that GMO crops have been around since the mid-1990s, arguing, “More than 16 million farmers are growing GM or biotech crops in more than 28 countries; these products have been approved for growing or importing in 60 countries.”
Pratt said the people should have the final say.
“At some point, the feds, the state has to start listening,” he said.