April 29, 2013

Our View: Legislature should pass GMO labeling bill

Consumers have a right to know whether their food has genetically engineered ingredients.

Free markets work best when consumers have what they need to make informed choices. That is the concept behind L.D. 718, the genetically modified organism labeling bill now before the Legislature.

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The label on a box of Erewhon Crispy Brown Rice Cereal states that the cereal contains no genetically engineered ingredients. L.D. 718, a proposal to require GMO labeling by food retailers in Maine, wouldn’t make the state an outlier, because it wouldn’t take effect unless five other states passed a similar mandate.

2002 File Photo/The Associated Press

That is also the reason that lawmakers should pass this law this year.

The bill is the result of an international effort by GMO skeptics to limit the use of genetic engineering in food manufacturing. The processes that make the plants and animals more efficient to grow and harvest, they say, could also make them dangerous to the consumer and the environment. The planting of a vegetable engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup, for instance, may result in more of the chemical being applied to fields and finding its way into people's food and water supply.

Food industry lobbyists counter that there is no evidence that GMOs are harmful, and that passing a law that makes Maine the first state to require GMO labeling would make Maine an outlier and put our food producers at a disadvantage.

Unfortunately, it's not easy to answer the question of whether the produce is dangerous. The way these crops are regulated does not give the government a role as an independent arbiter. Since GMO strains are patented, their owners can limit the kind of research conducted. Regulators depend on the manufacturer for self-reported data.

So what is a consumer to do? Certified organically grown products are GMO-free, but they tend to be more expensive and harder to find in some areas. Many conventional farmers harvest crops that don't use GMOs, but unless those farmers and retailers choose to label them that way, a consumer who cares about GMOs is left in the dark.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, strikes the right balance. It would not make Maine an outlier, because it would not go into effect unless GMO labeling were passed in five other states. It would not put an undue burden on farmers -- food marketers change their labels all the time.

The proposal would give consumers another piece of information when they make their choices, and would allow the free markets to work. As more information becomes available, either in favor or against the use of GMOs, those labels would be more valuable.

Ultimately, it comes down to a question of whether consumers have a right to know what's in their food. The Legislature does not have to decide that GMOs are harmful to decide that consumers should have that right.

Lawmakers should pass L.D. 718, and federal regulators should do a better job of determining what harm, if any, these crops create.


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