May 21, 2018
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On GMOs, Maine must take strong stand for consumers’ right to know

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Lance Harvell and Christopher Johnson, Special to the BDN

Buoyed by the overwhelming support of our constituents, the Maine Legislature proudly passed LD 718 earlier this year, a bill requiring any food containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, to be labeled as such.

This common-sense legislation shouldn’t be controversial. But food giant Monsanto is out for blood, apparently afraid that an informed consumer base will hurt its bottom line. Rather than admitting to consumers that its corn and soybean products contain GMOs, Monsanto is pulling out all the stops to prevent Gov. Paul LePage from signing this bill into law.

Gordon Colby provides the latest example of this vehement opposition to GMO labeling. In a Dec. 3 BDN OpEd, Colby took us around the world, noting opposition to GMO labeling in the Pacific Northwest, the benefits of GMOs to international development efforts and the dominance of GMO crops on multiple continents worldwide.

Despite Colby’s best efforts, in Augusta, we remain focused on Mainers. We readily admit that the experiences and opinions of Europeans, Africans, even Washingtonians, don’t have much influence over our decisions and actions. Mainers simply want the right to know what is in their food.

Where was Colby during the public hearings in Augusta last year? He did not testify, and his own industry group, the Wild Blueberry Commission, did not take a stand against the bill.

This conversation should properly focus on what Mainers want and what is best for the state. Let’s go there.

The Pan-Atlantic SMS Group conducted a poll of Mainers in March 2013 and found that more than 95 percent of us believe we have a right to know if our food contains genetically modified organisms. In turn, over 91 percent of Mainers support a requirement that Maine foods containing GMOs say as much on their labels.

Is it really a question whether consumers have a right to know what’s in their food? We require food manufacturers to be honest with us about sugar, calories, trans-fats and ingredients. Why shouldn’t we require that they be honest about the presence of genetically modified organisms in our food as well?

To be clear, this legislation is about consumer rights, and there is no indication (aside from the sputterings of Monsanto) that it will reduce choice or raise the cost of food. Even on that global stage on which Colby is so focused, 64 countries representing over half the world’s population require labeling of food containing GMOs. Even this vast experience offers no indication that GMO labeling affects the price consumers pay for their daily sustenance.

This experience is backed up by common sense. Food manufacturers regularly change their labels for a variety of promotional reasons. Adding the four words “Produced with Genetic Engineering” to relevant labels is hardly a burdensome demand.

Furthermore, Colby argues that for “genetically engineered food, let the market decide.” We wholeheartedly agree. However, for a free market to succeed, consumers need to understand what they are buying. The marketplace of ideas fails when businesses withhold information from the public. LD 718 provides consumers with a tool to allow for more informed decision making.

We want Mainers to retain a full menu of food choices, but we also want this menu to clearly denote what, exactly, they’re purchasing. Food manufacturers and producers will remain free to sell, and Mainers will be free to purchase, food containing GMOs.

There have been advances in technology in agriculture. However, the federal government does not test GMOs for safety or otherwise, counting on industry to provide such testing. Monsanto can treat people like lab rats, but we should at least have the right to know that we are living in an experiment. LD 718 does not make a judgment whether GMOs are good or bad, but it does take a strong stand for transparency and consumers’ right to know what is in their food. As we play God with the building blocks of life, it would behoove us to show a little humility.

The ever-litigious Monsanto is threatening to sue the state of Maine over LD 718, as well as a number of other states over similar laws. Monsanto can threaten litigation all it wants; this doesn’t change the fact that GMO labeling is a no-brainer. The overwhelming majority of Maine’s House and Senate passed LD 718. More than nine out of every ten Mainers support GMO labeling. And the governor has committed to signing LD 718.

Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, is the sponsor of LD 718. Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, is a cosponsor.

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