PORTLAND – A grocery store is a hotbed of questions. “Where are your tomatoes from?” “When are peaches going to come in?” “Do these chips have gluten?” “Who grew your broccoli?” “What are the benefits and the risks of unpasteurized milk?” “Is your celery sprayed with pesticides?” “What’s celeriac?” “Are your bananas fair-trade-certified?” “How do you cook ramps?”

We grocers and other food retailers thrive on these questions. They’re why we got into the business in the first place.

They remind us that all food has a story, a pedigree that helps establish its value. Food is based on sequence, on one thing following the other: sun, rain, earth, seed, plant, farmer, distributor, consumer, meal, compost.

The increasing frequency and intelligence of the questions remind us that customers are yearning, ever more avidly, to follow the sequence, to learn the stories and to support higher value.

Recent developments in biotechnology have added a new chapter to the story of food. We now have the ability to modify the very genetic make-up of plants. New questions arise. “What effects will our modification of seeds’ and edible plants’ genes have on food’s value?” “How will so-called genetically modified organisms affect flavor, nutrition, ecology and personal health?”

These are all fascinating questions, and speaking as one food retailer, we can’t wait to start exploring them.

L.D. 718 — the bill introduced to the Maine Legislature by Rep. Lance Harvell of Farmington, which would require foods containing GMOs to be clearly labeled as such — would allow this exploration. If passed into law, it will help food retailers connect more closely and honestly with their customers. That would be good for business, strengthening customer loyalty and distinguishing the “Maine brand.”

Those who oppose L.D. 718 fear its effects on their business, and have set up myriad straw men to cover their bottom line.

In this space last week (“Maine Voices: Affixing a GMO label to food would be misleading and expensive,” May 9), Robert Tardy, an industry lobbyist, claimed that “grocers, who are already struggling” would resent the law’s higher regulatory burden and concomitant fees.

I can reassure Tardy that we are not struggling! Indeed, grocers in Maine who focus on well-sourced food that is minimally processed and contains minimal additives are thriving, and hustling to keep up with demand.

The threat of increased costs from clearer, more detailed labeling is an age-old rhetorical distraction used by, among others, the tobacco industry, scared to acknowledge the dangers of smoking, and the processed-food industry, ashamed of the effects that a basic nutrition label might have on sales.

I am not convinced that genetic modification is necessarily all bad. I even have a hunch, for instance, that modifications to make crops more pest-resistant and therefore less reliant on insecticides and other chemical additives are crucial to our planet’s future.

But I’m just one person with opinions based on evidence that is currently incomplete. In my shopping choices, I don’t speak for anyone else. I just want to know as much as I can know.

I have the right to be armed with the information necessary to decide whether I want to investigate a particular food’s origins more deeply.

If that food is clearly labeled, I can make an intelligent decision. If it’s not, I’m in the dark. It’s as simple as that.

GMO lobbyists, despite their attempts to associate themselves with free-market principles, are the true fiscal baby sitters in this case because they would constrain consumers’ ability to make independent decisions. They’d rather decide for all of us.

A label announcing that a particular food was produced with genetically modified organisms is a clear, simple declaration of ingredients — an obligation in any functioning capitalist system. It is akin to a label announcing that a particular food was produced with butter or walnuts or kale, or a label announcing that a particular T-shirt was made of cotton.

Those who oppose L.D. 718 argue that such labels suggest risks of GMOs that haven’t been proven.

I don’t know on what planet a list of ingredients is a declaration of risk, but I don’t live there and I’m not sure who else would want to.

In the end, L.D. 718 is about clarity. It’s about honesty. It’s about informing customers so that they can make their own choices. It’s about providing the opportunity to ask questions and having the courage and principles to answer them.


Joe Appel of Portland works at Rosemont Market and Bakery in Portland and Yarmouth. He also writes the “Soul of Wine” column for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram’s Food & Dining section.


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