Eye on Augusta: GMO Labeling Bill Returns to the Legislature
Thursday, March 14, 2013 5:27 AM
It's very seldom that a bill gets as many as 123 cosponsors in the Maine Legislature unless it's a fairly drab measure, such as a joint resolution recognizing World Amateur Radio Day. It's even more uncommon to find broad tri-partisan support for such a controversial proposal as requiring food producers to label products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
illustration: Hanji Chang
And that's why so many anti-GMO activists are energized to see both conservatives and liberals rallying behind LD 718, An Act To Protect Maine Food Consumers' Right To Know about Genetically Engineered Food and Seed Stock, sponsored by Republican Rep. Lance Harvell (Farmington) and cosponsored by Democratic Sen. Chris Johnson (Lincoln County).
"The premise is a basic right - that we should all know whether the food we are buying is genetically engineered so we can decide for ourselves what we want to eat and feed our families," said Sen. Johnson. "A strong majority of people believe they should have that right, yet without labeling they lack the information necessary to exercise that right."
GMOs are defined as organisms in which the DNA has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. This often involves deleting genes or inserting them from another, sometimes non-related species of plant or animal. Through genetic engineering, scientists in the biotechnology industry have patented crops that are resistant to various insects, viral infections, certain herbicides and harsh environmental conditions. Insect-resistant crops can be derived from the insertion of the gene that produces the toxin from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bt is used as a conventional insecticide in agriculture, but the Food and Drug Administration has concluded it does not pose a risk to humans. Virus-resistant crops have been engineered by introducing a gene from certain plant viruses, and herbicide tolerance is achieved by introducing a gene from a bacterium-carrying herbicide.
GMO advocates claim that humans have bred plants and animals for their superior genetic traits for thousands of years and that genetically engineered crops are simply a more precise technological tool to accomplish that task. They claim GMOs have allowed them to use fewer pesticides and increase crop yields.
However, others worry that GMOs may have adverse effects on health and the environment. Citing various studies of GMO testing on animals, activists say there's evidence to show these organisms can cause infertility and damage to vital organs and can increase allergic reactions.
Jeffrey Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology, an organization dedicated to advising policy makers on the dangers of genetically modified foods, claims in his book Genetic Roulette that there are at least 65 health risks related to GMOs. This is a charge that those in the biotech industry vehemently deny, citing studies conducted by the National Academies of Sciences and the World Health Organization that back up their own assertions. The American Medical Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science also maintain that there is no scientific evidence to show that GMOs are harmful to humans.
The biotech giant Monsanto has also been a political lightning rod in the labeling debate. Due to changes in US patent laws, Monsanto has been able to legally patent genes in their products, and since 1997 the corporation has filed 145 lawsuits against farmers for saving and reusing Monsanto seeds without compensating the patent holder. Critics have accused Monsanto of threatening biodiversity by limiting the number of species in the food supply. Some have labeled the corporation as a kind of "biopirate" that profits from patenting crop genes at the expense of small farmers and consumers. As a result, some in the biotech and agricultural industry believe that labeling bills are simply a retaliatory tactic on the part of the organic industry with the aim to drive consumers away from scientifically proven technologies and into the organic market.
With an estimated 80% of processed foods containing GMOs, the only way people can currently know whether or not they're consuming genetically engineered food is if they buy organic, which forbids the use of GMOs.
MOFGA spokesperson Logan Perkins dismissed the anti-labeling arguments.
"Let the consumers decide," said Perkins. "Transparency in the marketplace allows informed consumers to make choices. A label is just a label. It's not a judgment. It's not a condemnation. It's not a value selection. Why are they so afraid of a label?"
And in spite of the claims from mainstream research and health organizations that the products are safe, more and more health-conscious people have begun calling for a GMO labeling law. Currently, 19 other countries and the European Union require GMO labeling. In five national polls conducted between 2008 and 2011, over 90 percent of respondents said they supported GMO labeling. However, as demonstrated by the results of California's ill-fated GMO labeling referendum last fall, support may not be so rock solid as polls suggest.
LD 718 is not the first GMO labeling bill proposed in Maine. The last time a labeling bill received as much attention was back in 2001, when former Rep. Paul Volenik (D-Brooklyn) submitted a similar measure. Although many members of the public testified in support, the bill was strongly opposed by influential groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the Maine Potato Board and the Maine Farm Bureau. Those in opposition argued that the bill would present an undue cost to food producers, which would be passed on to consumers. Speaking for the Maine Farm Bureau, director Jon Olsen said that the bill could potentially result in Maine farmers losing business because manufacturing purchasers might choose to do business with states that didn't have such a law. Former Governor Angus King's administration said that the bill sent the wrong message to business.
"It will raise a red flag to the world of commerce, saying we are not serious about our commitment to developing a technology-based agriculture industry that will remain viable in the future," a representative from the Department of Economic and Community Development said in a statement issued during that round.
Unlike previous GMO labeling attempts, Harvell and Johnson's bill waters down the measure considerably in an attempt to quell the opposition, especially from the local conventional farming community.
Rather than immediately requiring all food producers to label products containing GMOs, LD 718 would add Maine to an interstate compact, which would only enact the labeling policy if five other states join or a combination of states with a total population of 20 million people. The bill also exempts products with only a minimum content produced by genetic engineering as well as foods that were processed without the knowledge that some GMOs might have been used in their production. Finally, LD 718 exempts products derived from animals that are non-genetically engineered but that were fed genetically engineered food.
Conservative Argument for Government Intervention
There has also been a strong ideological shift since 2001. Of the 69 legislators who supported the 2001 proposal, only 11 were Republicans. The current GMO bill has 38 GOP cosponsors already.
Supporters of the bill, including the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and Food for Maine's Future, say the shift in ideology has been largely due to the efforts of Rep. Harvell, who has been an influential voice in the Republican caucus.
Rep. Aaron Libby (R-Waterboro), who opposes the bill, says it has split libertarian-minded conservatives between those who believe a free market can't function without adequate information and those who eschew all government intervention, including food labeling.
"You're extending the hand of government, inflating the monster, putting more breath into it," Libby told Harvell in the hall of the State House one morning. "This is just another way of the government interfering in the free market, which we still don't yet have anyway."
Harvell countered by quoting libertarian icon and Austrian School economist Ludwig von Mises.
"No, this is a free market bill because von Mises says that markets only work when you have free access to information," Harvell said. "The reality is that because of the complexity of the modern world, the average consumer wants to know this, but they don't know how to know it."
"von Mises never meant that the government should do that," Libby replied. "He meant that the consumers should make that demand, not the hand of government."
According to Libby's libertarian argument, the biotech giant Monsanto is only powerful because of favorable legislation granted to it by the government, such as in allowing the company to patent its genetically engineered products.
Other conservatives have argued for GMO labeling on religious grounds.
"There are also those who believe that this is idolatrous in a kind of way," said Harvell. "This is an interspecies issue, and they're playing God in laboratories."
Rep. Dale Crafts (R-Lisbon) and Rep. Jeff Timberlake (R-Turner), two rock-ribbed conservatives with solid free-market records, have also found themselves at a rare point of disagreement. Crafts, an active member of the Legislature's Conservative Caucus, says he recognizes that the labeling bill could pose a burden for some businesses. However, he says from the information he's gathered about the food industry, "it's pretty scary out there." Recently, Crafts says he's begun eating mostly organic and is about 95 percent vegan. He believes more conservative-minded people are beginning to look at the food they eat with more scrutiny.
"I'm as staunch a businessman as you get, but I think we need to put health and humans before the buck," said Crafts. "I look at the cancer rate these days and I think everybody should be a little nervous. What's causing all of it? I'm a firm believer in 'you are what you eat.'"
Rep. Timberlake, an apple farmer who sits near Crafts in the legislative chamber, dismisses his friend's concerns. From a farmer's perspective, there's no need for the law because current law allows farmers to label their product non-GMO and get a premium price for it, said Timberlake. As a member of the Agriculture Committee, which will soon consider LD 718, Timberlake says he plans to fight the bill hard. Meanwhile, Crafts says he's put a copy of the documentary film version of Genetic Roulette on Timberlake's desk.
"We need to get educated on this," said Crafts. "If he has something for me to watch I'll watch that too."
Currently, 30 states are considering GMO labeling proposals, but none so far have passed such a measure.
On March 1, the Vermont Legislature's Agriculture Committee passed a labeling bill, but it still must face more hurdles in the Legislature for approval.
In Maine, LD 718 divided leadership over whether to send the bill to the Labor, Research and Economic Development Committee or to the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, where it has traditionally been referred. Supporters of the bill fought to avoid referring it to the more conservative ACF Committee, arguing that since it exempted farmers who fed animals GMO food, it was not an agricultural issue. There have also been worries that the ACF Committee will not be as receptive to LD 718, as it has squashed similar proposals in the past.
ACF co-chair Rep. Jim Dill (D-Old Town) says he's not opposed to the idea, but would prefer that the compact include five Northeast states or five contiguous states, rather than simply the first five states to join, to reduce the burden on food producers. In addition to Dill's concerns, the Maine Farm Bureau and the Maine Grocers Association say they haven't taken a stand on LD 718. But a spokesman for the MGA noted that the board has had a "fairly consistent board of directors" since 2001, which implies that their stance probably won't change.
Meanwhile, Biotechnology Information Organization lobbyist Bob Tardy, a former chair of the ACF Committee, said he isn't worried about the consequences should LD 718 pass.
"Nothing will happen, because I don't think five other states will pass it," said Tardy. "It might happen on the federal level where it belongs. Maine shouldn't be an outlier."
President Obama promised to enact a GMO labeling policy on the campaign trail in 2007, but has so far not made any movement on the issue. He has since appointed Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto Vice President of Public Policy, to the post of Deputy Commissioner of Foods at the Food and Drug Administration.
MOFGA has pulled out the big guns by hiring legendary Democratic insider Severin Beliveau's powerhouse lobbying firm Preti-Flaherty, Beliveau and Pachios. Preti-Flaherty will likely face off with leading lobbying firm Mitchell Tardy, founded by former Republican House Leader Josh Tardy (son of Bob Tardy) and former Maine Democratic Party chair Jim Mitchell, whose client list includes the Grocery Manufacturers of America.The Legislature's Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee is continuing to hold daily public hearings on portions of the Governor's biennial budget in Room 228 of the State House. The budget includes state spending for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years. The budget can be viewed on the Bureau of the Budget's website: www.maine.gov/legis/ofpr/appropriations_committee/materials/index.htm. All meetings may be heard over the Internet by visiting www.maine.gov/legis/ofpr/appropriations_committee/audio/index.htm.
MONDAY, MARCH 18
Appropriations and Financial Affairs
Biennial Budget Hearings:
State Board of Education - Removes the requirement that the State Board of Education approve the Commissioner's recommendation of funding levels. Department of Education - Establishes the Total Cost of K-12 Education for FY12, the state contribution and the annual target state share percentage and makes changes to the Center of Excellence for At Risk Students, authorizes the purchase of portable computer systems for students and educators to the tune of $70 million. Teacher Retirement - Requires municipalities to shoulder a portion of teacher's retirement.
Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry
LD 475 An Act To Increase Food Sovereignty in Local Communities
LD 745 An Act To Promote Sustainable Food Policies
Labor, Commerce, and Economic Development
LD 149 An Act To Make Gold and Silver Coins and Bars Legal Tender
LD 840 An Act To Amend the Law Regulating the Use of Explosives
LD 672 An Act To Facilitate Collection of Property Taxes on Personal Property
LD 445 Resolve, To Require the State Tax Assessor To Develop Agreements with Online Retailers for the Collection of Sales and Use Tax
LD 346 An Act To Require the Collection of Sales Tax by any Business Making Sales to Persons in Maine
LD 489 RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Increase the Lengths of Terms of Members of the Legislature
LD 490 RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Limit a Governor's Pension to Governors Who Have Served 2 Full Terms
LD 856 RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Require State Officers To Be Elected by a Majority of Voters
LD 740 RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Require That the Attorney General Be Elected by Popular Vote
TUESDAY, MARCH 19
Energy, Utilities and Technology
LD 795 An Act To Amend the Net Energy Billing Program To Allow Participation by Certain Municipal Entities
LD 352 An Act To Prohibit Prisoners from Filing Protection from Harassment Complaints against Corrections Personnel
LD 395 An Act To Allow a Pet Owner To Collect Noneconomic Damages for the Death of a Pet
LD 550 An Act To Require Probate Judges, Registers of Probate and Registers of Deeds To Be Appointed (rather than populary elected)
Health and Human Services
LD 517 An Act To Restore Funding for Head Start
LD 520 An Act To Protect Maine Consumers from Predatory Medical Pricing
LD 629 An Act To Restore Eligibility and Funding for Drug Programs for the Elderly and Disabled
Maine's Workforce and Economic Future
LD 90 An Act To Strengthen Maine's Workforce and Economic Future
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 20
Appropriations and Financial Affairs
Biennial Budget Hearings: Largely eliminates the Maine Clean Election Fund for local candidate races.
Education and Cultural Affairs
LD 666 An Act To Limit the Amount a School Administrative Unit May Spend without Voter Approval
LD 638 An Act To Require That School Budget Referenda Be Held on the Same Day as Primary Elections
Environment and Natural Resources
LD 115 An Act To Join in a Prohibition on Motor Fuel Containing Corn-based Ethanol
LD 396 An Act To Appropriate Sufficient Funds for Indigent Legal Services
LD 415 An Act To Require a Warrant To Obtain the Location Information of a Cell Phone or Other Electronic
LD 552 An Act To Expedite Court Proceedings by Providing Funds for Additional District Court Personnel
LD 581 An Act To Amend the Laws Governing Service of Process in Eviction Actions
Labor, Commerce and Economic Development
LD 853 Resolve, Requiring the Department of Labor To Establish a Fund To Assist Unemployed Individuals Lacking Transportation to Job Interviews
LD 585 An Act To Require the Development of a Statewide Approach to Seaweed Management
LD 643 An Act To Create a Tax Incentive Program To Improve the Maine Lobster Industry
Veterans and Legal Affairs
LD 592 An Act To Amend the Laws Dealing with the Purchase of Wine Online
LD 607 An Act To Make an Employee Who Sells Alcoholic Beverages or Tobacco to a Minor Responsible for Paying the Fine
LD 608 An Act To Assist Maine Businesses Paying Taxes on Spirits
LD 702 An Act To Strengthen the Law Prohibiting Black Market Wagering on Harness Horse Races
THURSDAY, MARCH 21
Appropriations and Financial Affairs
Biennial Budget Hearings - Department of Labor
Insurance and Financial Affairs
LD 645 An Act To Allow the Adjustment of the Assessment Rate for the Rural Medical Access Program
LD 648 An Act To Make Records of External Review Proceedings Overseen by the Bureau of Insurance Confidential
LD 653 An Act To Remove an Unnecessary Provision in the Maine Insurance Code
LD 580 An Act To Prohibit Denial of Insurance Coverage When a Building Contains a Wood Stove
LD 683 An Act To Assist Homeowners with Wood Stoves in Obtaining Property Insurance
LD 523 An Act To Require Health Insurance Coverage for Hearing Aids for Adults
FRIDAY, MARCH 22
Appropriations and Financial Affairs
Biennial Budget Hearings: Continues the freeze on merit pay increases and suspends longevity pay for state employees. Directs the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, Bureau of the Budget and the Executive Department Office of Policy and Management to identify 100 positions to be eliminated
LD 166 An Act To Criminalize Importation of So-called Bath Salts Containing Synthetic Hallucinogenic Drugs
LD 661 An Act To Prohibit Sale or Possession of Synthetic Cannabinoids
LD 664 An Act To Increase the Penalties for Crimes Involving Illegal or Prescription Drugs
LD 873 An Act To Establish Positive Reentry Parole
LD 614 An Act To Adjust Fuel Taxes To Improve Sustainability - Changes the excise tax on gasoline, distillates and low-energy fuel from a fixed amount per gallon to a formula that includes a fixed amount per gallon plus 5% of the retail value of that gallon.
LD 624 An Act To Encourage Local Business Involvement in Local Schools - Provides a nonrefundable income tax credit to a qualified employer equal to the amount expended on a qualified adopt-a-school activity that benefits a public elementary or secondary school.
LD 866 An Act To Create an Income Tax Credit for Educational Supplies Purchased by Public School Employees
LD 693 An Act To Provide Solar Energy Tax Credits
to Maine Homeowners - Provides an income tax credit
for installations of qualifying solar energy systems. The
credits are $1,000 for installations of qualifying solar energy systems on residential property and $2,000 for installations of qualifying solar energy systems on commercial
LD 565 Resolve, To Establish a Task Force To Study the Feasibility of Imposing Tolls on Interstate 95
LD 721 An Act To Provide Transparency in Public-private Partnerships for Transportation Projects - Under current law, materials used or submitted in connection with a proposal for a public-private partnership for a transportation project are confidential. This bill provides that those materials are public records.
LD 763 Resolve, Directing the Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority To Conduct a Study Regarding the Need for a Passenger Transit Service Linking Municipalities from Portland North to Lewiston and Auburn.