Maine’s food economy is booming. That said, it faces a number of challenges. Here are four policy issues that Mainers who care about sustainable food will want to watch in the coming months.

GMO Labeling

In 2013, Maine became only the second state in the nation (after Connecticut) to pass a bill requiring foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled as such. It was truly a bipartisan effort, and Governor Paul LePage signed the bill into law in January. An estimated 70 percent of supermarket foods contain some ingredient that was made from a GMO — so where are your labels reminding you that GMO corn is in practically everything?

They’re waiting on New Hampshire. Maine’s GMO law contains a trigger clause; it can’t go into effect unless four other contiguous states pass comparable labeling laws. Connecticut already signed a bill into law while in Vermont, a bill has passed the House and is being reviewed by the Senate. New Hampshire (the only state Maine shares a border with) is likely to be the sticking point since GMO labeling has been a partisan issue in the Granite State. The New Hampshire legislature recently voted to refer Senate Bill 411 for interim study. “They didn’t kill it, but they aren’t moving it forward,” said Bonnie Wright of the New Hampshire chapter of the labeling advocacy coalition Right to Know GMO. She expects a new bill to be introduced next January, “and we’ll start the process all over again.” But supporters aren’t discouraged. “This is by far the closest we’ve gotten,” Wright said.

What to watch? The results of New Hampshire’s SB411.

Food Sovereignty and Raw Milk

The term “raw milk” refers to unpasteurized milk — aka, straight from the cow to your glass without the heating process that reduces pathogens. Some swear by raw milk’s health properties, believing that it strengthens the immune system, prevents pathogens from being absorbed across the intestinal wall and is full of natural vitamins and minerals. In Los Angeles, the stuff is so coveted that consumers pay $16 a gallon for it. In Maine, the battle over raw milk has been a key component (along with poultry processing by small farmers) in the food sovereignty movement that has led 10 towns, including Blue Hill, Sedgwick and Isle au Haut, to pass laws entitling citizens to produce, process, sell, purchase and consume local foods of their own choosing.

Who disagrees? For starters, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which warns on its website that raw milk (and products made from it, like cheese and yogurt) can “pose severe health risks.” The CDC’s research shows that raw milk is 150 times more likely to cause outbreaks of dairy-related diseases than pasteurized milk. Among its laundry list of diseases that can be caused by bacteria in raw milk: tuberculosis, diphtheria and severe streptococcal infections. The Food and Drug Administration has raided farms, cooperatives and markets that sell raw milk.

None of this has reduced demand nationally and certainly not in Maine. Last year, Gov. LePage vetoed a bill that would have allowed small-scale producers to sell raw milk without a license; he opposed the sale of raw milk at farmers’ markets, but said he’d consider an amended bill allowing such sales at the farms of producers. At the state level, a bill introduced by Rep. William Noon (D-Sanford) allows for sales along those lines but prohibits any promotion of raw milk except through talking directly with customers. It’s been reported out of committee with amendments, including a provision that producers take a sanitation course through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Stay tuned.

The issue is also on the table nationally. In March, Republican Thomas Massie of Kentucky introduced two pieces of legislation designed to make it easier for consumers to obtain raw milk, HR 4307 (“The Milk Freedom Act of 2014”) and HR 4308 (“The Interstate Milk Freedom Act of 2014), and harder for the government to penalize producers. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) is one of 19 co-sponsors. Both bills were referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

WHAT TO WATCH? Noon’s L.D. 1786 and the two bills before the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Price of Milk

At the supermarket, it’s an easy choice — gallon, quart, half-gallon? — but on a legislative level, few things are as complex as the pricing structure of dairy products. Federal pricing is widely considered to favor the bigger dairies; in Maine, even our big dairies are small by national standards. Farmers are feeling the squeeze. Between March and December 2013, the number of Maine dairy farms dropped from 307 to 287, and more have been lost since then. That’s why U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) added a provision to the 2014 Farm Bill that would have required the USDA to begin a hearing process to restructure the milk pricing system. When that provision got dropped at the 11th hour, Collins voted against the bill.

On the state level, Maine has its own dairy price stabilization program, designed to create a safety net for the state’s dairies. Last year one bill, L.D. 789, evolved into a resolution to establish a “Task Force on Milk Tier Pricing,” and the dairy price stabilization program is likely to resurface this year. Small dairy farms continue to take a hit, so expect to see those producers advocating for better protections. Mark Lapping, a member of the Maine Food Strategy Project research committee, points out that the price-stabilization program affects more than milk production. Tourism, one of the state’s biggest sources of revenue, could also be jeopardized. It’s not just Maine’s working waterfront that attracts tourists, Lapping said. “It’s the hay coming in, the cows out in the fields,” he said. “It’s the kind of bucolic landscape that tourists love and want to see.”

WHAT TO WATCH? The state’s dairy price stabilization program.

Marketing Lobster

Last year L.D. 486 created the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative to aggressively market Maine lobster worldwide; it’s expected to generate $9 million over the next five years. The group replaced the Lobster Promotion Council, but its formation was contentious. Lobstermen and women, dealers and processors are paying a steeper surcharge to fund the marketing group and as the summer goes on, they’ll want to see results. While 2013 was a banner year for landings, the second biggest on record with 126 million pounds, the boat price was the second lowest in nearly 20 years.

WHAT TO WATCH? The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. Is it getting results?

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6458 or at:[email protected]