|Amy Gerritsen testified about labeling genetically engineered foods before the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Photo by Jennifer Wixson.
By Jean English
Editor, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener
Some 20 years ago, Robert Tardy, then a Maine state representative and now a lobbyist for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, testified before an agriculture committee hearing in opposition to labeling genetically engineered foods, saying, “You feel a lot better about your food if you are not reading a lot while you are eating it.”
As we learned this spring, 91 percent of Maine voters surveyed don’t feel good about not knowing what’s in their food; they want to know whether their food contains genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. This polling result is consistent with numerous polls nationwide.
On April 23, more than 200 people took the time to attend a rally at the Maine State House to confirm that the people want to know what is in their food. Almost 100 signed up to testify in support of LD 718, Maine's Right to Know GMO Labeling bill, before the Legislature's Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (ACF). They want the same rights that more than half the world’s people, in 62 other countries, have.
Bill sponsor Rep. Lance Harvell said, while introducing the bill, "Markets work best when people have access to information."
Senator Chris Johnson, the other primary sponsor, asked, "How many of you woke up today and said, 'Today I feel like being a lab rat for genetically engineered foods. I'd like my children to be part of the experiment, too.'" Labeling, he said, "is a risk management strategy for scientific uncertainty."
Representative Anne Haskell pointed out that LD 718 was simply a common-sense labeling bill. Maine and 10 other states have bottle bills, she said. This bill is even simpler, as it has no deposit or redemption aspects.
Altogether, LD 718 had 123 co-sponsors.
People testified to concerns about health effects of GE foods, pervasive on today’s grocery shelves. Michael Hansen, a Ph.D. biologist and ecologist from Consumers Union and an expert on GE food, told the ACF committee that the U.S. government requires no independent safety tests before approving GE foods. He read from a letter FDA sent to Monsanto about an engineered corn variety that contains the insecticidal Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin: “Based on the safety and nutritional assessment you have conducted, it is our understanding that Monsanto has concluded that corn grain and forage derived from the new variety are not materially different in composition, safety, or other relevant parameters from corn grain and forage currently on the market, and that they do not raise issues that would require premarket review or approval by FDA.” This is typical of letters FDA has sent for other GE crops, said Hansen.
As Heather Spalding, MOFGA’s interim executive director, says, “You can’t say there are no health effects when you haven’t been testing for them.”
Given the scientific uncertainties, said Hansen, it is essential to label GE foods in order to track potential adverse human health or nutritional impacts.
Some testifying in favor of LD 718 also noted environmental concerns (increased use of pesticides with GE crops, for example); concerns about shrinking agroecological biodiversity due to GE foods; and the problem of corporate control over our food.
Stephen Webster delivered powerful testimony about the latter. He drove 13 hours to testify, from his family farm in Blyth, Ontario, where he raises 400 acres of mostly identity preserved, non-GE soy for the Japanese market. He said that when his crop was contaminated by nearby GE soy, the Japanese would not buy it – a $15,000 loss for Webster's family. His 77-year-old father took Monsanto to small claims court, where, said Webster, Monsanto threatened to move the proceeding to Superior Court, which would force the Websters to spend $100,000 or more. Monsanto, Webster said, told his family they did not provide a big enough buffer strip; they had too many bees on their farm; that the farmer next door, growing GE soy, was responsible for compensating them for their losses; and that his father was lucky they were not suing him for using their genes without paying them a royalty. The Websters dropped the suit.
MOFGA member and certified organic farmer Jim Gerritsen says Webster "was the innocent victim of contamination by Monsanto's patented transgenic technology. Monsanto – chief GMO labeling opponent – demonstrated remarkable bullying and aggression against Steve. This aggressive behavior by Monsanto was something the ACF Committee needed to hear firsthand."
Rabbi Moshe Wilansky of Portland said that the Talmud calls for truth. “By not labeling,” he said, “people assume an apple is an apple.”
Likewise, 10-year-old Amy Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm testified, “In our family honesty is very important. I think companies should tell us what’s in our food. I think companies should be honest.”
Opponents of labeling included the Biotechnology Industry Organization, Maine Farm Bureau (although Gerritsen testified that the Aroostook County Farm Bureau board of directors endorsed LD 718), Grocery Manufacturers Association, Maine State Chamber of Commerce, agricultural consultant Lauchlin Titus, Ron Dyer, director of the Maine Department of Agriculture Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations, and the Maine Potato Board.
They cited increased costs to producers (even though labels are changed regularly for other reasons), creation of alarm that GE foods may be harmful (although consumers already seem to be alarmed by the industry’s apparent fear of labeling), potential violation of the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution (although Hansen noted that foods are already labeled for various reasons) and no record of harm to humans from GE foods (Robert Tardy’s testimony this time).
Opponents said out-of-state producers won’t send their products to Maine if labeling is required. They ignored the fact that five states or states with a combined population of 20 million must pass similar bills before LD 718 takes effect. Their statement prompted Rep. Craig Hickman to suggest that any drop in out-of-state products should open markets for Maine producers.
Opponents said labeling should occur at the federal level (something MOFGA and others have been awaiting for 20 years). Rep. Hickman noted that only when it comes to food do these groups seem to trust the federal government.
When Dyer said labeling would create too much work for his department, Rep. Hickman asked, “What do you do over there?”
Opponents were right on one count, sort of: We already can avoid GE ingredients by choosing organic foods – when they are available (many foods are not widely available as organic) and when we can afford to do so. Lacking those options, if we want the right to know what’s in our food, we must now assume that all non-organic products containing corn, cotton products (cottonseed oil, for example), canola, soy and sugar (from sugar beets) are engineered, and do our best to avoid them.
The ACF committee listened to testimony attentively for seven hours and asked intelligent questions throughout. As we went to press, the committee had voted 8 to 4 in favor of labeling and was awaiting language review before sending the bill for votes in the House and Senate.