AUGUSTA – In its April 29 editorial (“Our View: Legislature should pass GMO labeling bill”), the Portland Press Herald made the case for the passage of L.D. 718, a bill before the Legislature that would require all biotech-improved foods to be affixed with a label that says “Produced with Genetic Engineering.”
The newspaper’s support of this bill and the concept behind it was based on the premise that “free markets work best when consumers have what they need to make informed choices.”
In grocery stores throughout America, product labels providing important decision-making details are abundant. For individuals who choose not to eat biotech-improved products, two voluntary labeling programs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Certified Organic program and the Non-GMO Project, point the way to a gallery of options.
And while the editorial argues that not all conventionally grown products are labeled as such — and it would be great for consumers to choose those less-expensive options instead of having to pay a premium for organics — it follows that once those products are differentiated as non-GMO by the absence of a mandatory label, their prices will naturally rise.
Consumers should be informed of ingredients or products that pose health or safety risks, but biotech-improved products simply do not fall into that space. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Pediatrics have all released statements in support of biotechnology and the foods that it produces.
Since this technology emerged, more than 600 peer-reviewed studies have been conducted on the topic by various public and private organizations, and they all come to the same conclusion: Genetically modified foods are no less safe or nutritious than their conventional counterparts.
Most U.S. crops today are grown using these techniques. Eighty-eight percent of all corn, 94 percent of all soybeans, and 95 percent of all canola, sweet corn, squash, papaya, alfalfa and sugar beets are produced using some form of genetic modification. By using rDNA technology to remove undesirable traits or add optimal ones, crops can be grown faster and more reliably with less vulnerability to pest or environmental damage.
The efficiencies created by these advanced farming technologies drive down costs and increase access to a variety of foods, meaning fruits and vegetables can reach the tables of morre Americans.
These efficiencies would be marginalized by L.D. 718. By making it mandatory for all biotech-improved foods to be labeled as such, the cost of all groceries would have to rise. This would partly be a product of the obvious expense — new labels and shelf displays — but the real cost would extend far beyond the price of printing.
Grocers, who are already struggling, would need to invest in legal safeguards and workers to police the compliance effort. With one mislabeled can of spaghetti sauce costing $1,000 per day in fines, the stakes would be high. Studies in other states considering similar bills have put the exact cost passed to consumers at anywhere between a few dollars and 10 percent of the average grocery bill.
But let’s focus on what this means specifically to Maine. The USDA estimates that 14.7 percent of Maine households, or 200,000 people, are food insecure, meaning that they lack access to enough food to ensure proper nutrition.
People with food insecurity don’t agonize about making the right choice between organic, conventional or genetically modified produce; instead, they weigh the pros and cons of buying food, medicine or heating oil — because they can’t afford all three. Let’s not make Mainers’ real choices more difficult by adding to the cost of food.
Further, let’s not stigmatize the category of food that the majority of our residents consume. We can’t assume that all shoppers will have read the studies proving the safety of GMOs, so lawmakers would be wise to consider the demoralized feeling many will experience when the food they resign themselves to feeding their family sounds a bit suspect.
They should also consider those who, falsely alarmed, reluctantly switch to pricier organics — throwing their family budgets out of balance and generating unnecessary stress.
For so many reasons, this legislation would be harmful to Maine. It is needless, expensive for businesses and consumers alike and is bound to confuse and mislead the public. I hope state government will preserve its credibility as a source of what people need to make informed choices — relevant, nonbiased information — by taking a pass on L.D. 718.
Robert Tardy of Palmyra, a former Democratic House chair of the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee, is now a Biotechnology Industry Association lobbyist.