August 04, 2020

A bill to Maine’s tastes

It’s time to order seeds for the farm or garden. Do you choose the new genetically engineered variety that splices in foreign genes from another species of plant, animal, or bacteria, to produce some desired trait? If Rep. Linda Rogers McKee and Coop Voices Unite have their druthers, all of Maine will “Just Say No” to GE plants for the next three years. There are four excellent reasons to support L.D. 1219, the GE crop moratorium.

. To give the feds time to develop an effective regulatory framework. There is still no mandatory safety testing for most GE foods, and despite planting tens of thousands of acres with GE crops, no agency has prepared an Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Policy Act.

In 2000, the Interior Department undertook a review of the adequacy of federal oversight of biotechnology, focusing on the threat that GE plants and animals will become invasive species. William Brown, former Science Advisor to Bruce Babbitt, reported that the Department found biotech federal oversight to be a “tangle of inadequate laws and programs,” creating a system that was “deficient, beyond public comprehension, and in one major respect contrary to the statutes upon which they are based.”

Interior recommended a complete legislative overhaul of health, safety, and environmental review of biotech products – a proposal resisted by the FDA and USDA. USDA biotechnologist Margaret Jones reported to a Bangor audience last November that the USDA was continuing to work with Interior and that a proposal for new federal legislation to address these concerns was “in the works.” Shouldn’t we wait until these problems have been solved on the federal level, before continuing to permit release of GE plants on our farmland?

. To put Maine agriculture on the map, and give real meaning to “Get Real, Get Maine!” Consumers want the choice not to buy GE food. Without a system of mandatory federal GE labeling, there’s little option other than buying organic to exercise that choice. As Gov. Baldacci noted, “The silver lining of GMO use may be that Maine’s blossoming organic agriculture industry will grow to an increasingly valuable segment of our rural economy as consumers seek out GMO-free produce.” Indeed, in response in part to concern about GE ingredients, as well as pesticide residues, the demand for organic food has been growing by 20 percent or more per year for the past decade, five times faster than food sales in general. When “Made in Maine” means “GMO free,” all Maine farmers will benefit.

. To send a strong message to Washington that we want GE labeling. The Maine Commission to Study Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering recommended mandatory federal labeling of GE foods in 1996. Repeated efforts to legislate labeling in Maine have failed, not because the legislators don’t support the consumer’s right to know, but because they feel it should be done federally. The European Union is expected to approve rules next month that will require a GMO label on any food containing more than 0.9 percent GMO material, according to the journal Science in December.

Recent research conducted at the University of Maine found that “almost all participants wanted genetically modified foods labeled because consumers have a right to know what goes into their bodies.” Gov. Baldacci was a co-sponsor of the federal Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act and pledged to encourage Maine’s congressional delegation to support this legislation and push for its passage.

. To ensure the integrity of Maine’s organic production. Consumers suspicious of genetically modified foods trust that organic products are free of GMO contamination, and that organic livestock and dairy herds are not fed with GMO grains. Several Maine seed companies are developing national markets for organic seeds, but have concerns about their ability to produce some varieties of seed without threat of cross-contamination.

Similarly Maine’s certified organic dairy farmers, representing 12.6% of Maine dairy farms, are threatened by the risk that their field corn could be contaminated by pollen from the roughly 1000 acres planted with GE corn in Maine. Legislation enacted in 2001 (7 MRSA sec. 1051) required GMO manufacturers to instruct farmers in ways to minimize potential cross-contamination, including adequate buffer zones. Organic farmers have expressed serious concerns about inadequate enforcement of the legislation. As agricultural economist Charles Benbrook commented in the Nov. 14, 2002, Department of Agriculture forum on biotechnology, “It’s probably inevitable that GMO growth will be at the expense of the organic sector, and vice versa … Maine is one of the few states where there is an option to make the decision [not to plant GMOs] … where the presence and role of GMOs is so modest that it would not take much if the consensus was to take a different route.”

“Get Real, Get Maine” never sounded so good.

Sharon Tisher teaches environmental law at the University of Maine and is chair of the Public Policy Committee of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

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