EDITORIALS

Give consumers a choice and label genetically modified foods

Posted April 25, 2013, at 1:58 p.m.
Last modified April 25, 2013, at 5:12 p.m.
Servers Austin Ginsberg and Jonathan Bisagni feed soup to fellow protesters during an eat-in in front of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in College Park, Maryland April 8, 2013.  The protesters are demanding for Genetically Modified Foods (GMO) to be labelled and tested long-term on human beings before being approved.
GARY CAMERON | Reuters
Servers Austin Ginsberg and Jonathan Bisagni feed soup to fellow protesters during an eat-in in front of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in College Park, Maryland April 8, 2013. The protesters are demanding for Genetically Modified Foods (GMO) to be labelled and tested long-term on human beings before being approved.

At first we were skeptical about requiring the labeling of genetically modified food in Maine, thinking it a fringe issue. But it turns out a large majority of Maine residents from a number of political affiliations want to know what they’re eating. A bill, LD 718, sponsored by Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, and co-sponsored by 123 Republicans, Democrats and independents, would require that foods containing genetically modified organisms be labeled as such. It should pass.

A decision about the bill should not be based on assertions that GMOs lead to health problems as there have been no long-term, independent, conclusive studies conducted on humans that show such risks associated with GMOs. However, there has also not been enough adequate testing to ensure complete safety, according to the National Institutes of Health. The uncertainty has made some people wary and has led 62 countries, including those that make up the European Union, to require the labeling of all GMO products.

A label that says “produced with genetic engineering” doesn’t imply risk. Governments require labeling to publicize information about a number of things, not all of which are nutrition related. Juice is labeled if it’s from concentrate, for example, and food products are labeled as to their country of origin.

The opposition has stated the bill would impose a burden on farmers, but for the most part it would affect out-of-state producers. Only a few vegetables are currently genetically modified in Maine: some sweet corn and a small amount of zucchini and yellow squash. The bill would require growers to send an affidavit with their food or seed stock shipments, certifying that products — that have the capability to be genetically modified — are not. It exempts restaurants and alcoholic beverages from requiring labels, and it would not require the labeling of animal products, such as meat or milk, that were fed GMO crops.

LD 718 would take effect only if similar legislation passes in at least five other states or in states with a combined population of at least 20 million. That means producers and growers wouldn’t have to change their practices for the small population of Maine. If not enough states pass legislation by 2023, LD 718 would be repealed.

Some of the bill’s opponents assert that genetic engineering has been done for thousands of years, with farmers breeding plants and animals to produce desired characteristics. But selective breeding depends on nature to build the gene. Genetic engineering is when a scientist moves genes from one plant to another, or one animal to a plant, to get a desired effect.

Genetically engineered organisms can have great benefits. They can make certain crops drought resistant or grow faster. They can reduce the need for pesticides. But some people worry about modified organisms interbreeding with natural ones and out-competing them. They also worry that genetically modified plants may be resistant to some pests but more susceptible to others. Until the Food and Drug Administration pursues a wide-ranging evaluation process to test the safety and benefits of genetically modified foods — and does not rely on the biotechnology companies themselves to conduct safety testing — it’s reasonable to let people decide for themselves what agriculture practices to support and what food to consume.

Opponents of LD 718 have said consumers can simply buy organic if they want to avoid GMOs. Assuming people could reasonably live on a diet consisting entirely of organic products, it doesn’t solve the problem of residents wanting to know where their food comes from. And while organic products are not supposed to contain GMOs, they are not necessarily 100 percent GMO free, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A poll by Pan Atlantic SMS Group conducted between March 11 and March 16 found that 91.1 percent of Maine voters support requiring the labeling of food containing GMOs. A CBS/New York Times poll in 2008 found 87 percent support. As John Jemison, soil and water quality specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said, “I think most people would just really like to know what’s there and what’s not. I don’t think it’s a safety issue. I think it’s strictly: Is information a good thing?”

It is.

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