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GMO Labeling: Simple Transparency, or Undue Burden for Maine Farmers?
04/23/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Genetically-engineered food in Maine would need to be labeled as such, under a bill being considered by Maine lawmakers. If it were to pass, the measure could only take effect after similar legislation has passed in a handful of other states. Opponents, including major food and agriculture industry groups, told lawmakers at a public hearing that the bill isn't supported by science and would raise costs for businesses and consumers. But supporters argued that consumers have a right to know whether the food they're consuming comes from genetically-modified organisms - or GMOs. Jay Field reports.

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GMOs have been engineered to include DNA from organisms, whose genetic material wouldn't otherwise mix together in nature. The idea is to create crops that have certain traits - say a resistence to herbicides - that do not occur in plants that are traditionally bred. Eighty-five percent of all the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, according to the Just Label It coalition.

"And if you're going to engage the American public, and the people of Maine, in a lab experiment, you know, it's my opinion that perhaps they ought to know they're in that lab experiment," said Rep. Lance Harvell, testifying before the Legislature's Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

Harvell is sponsoring a bill that would would make Maine the first state in the nation to require GMO labeling of all genetically-modified foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Farmington Republican told fellow lawmakers, doesn't test GMO seeds to see if they pose any risks to human health. Instead, Harvell says the government has left this safety testing to the biotech industry.

"And so we're taking the word of the biotech industry," he said. "And in my opinion, this is somewhat like the fox guarding the hen house."

On it's Web site, the Just Label It coalition notes that more than 70 percent of all processed foods in the U.S. now contain GMO material. The group says not enough research has been done on the question of whether genetically-engineered food is safe for human consumption.

A 2011 study out of Quebec, however, found that an insecticide from GMO corn is now showing up in the bloodstreams of pregnant women and their fetuses. Supporters say consumers have a right to know if they're buying genetically-engineered food, especially in the absence of more definitive research on the potential health risks.

Jim Gerritsen testified in support of the GMO labeling bill. Gerritsen runs Wood Prairie Farm in Aroostook County and is a member of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. "It makes no judgement whether GMOs are good or bad. It is simple transparency. The same as the FDA requires that frozen concentrated orange juice be labeled."

A recent poll shows that more than 90 percent of people in Maine support labeling genetically-modified food. Sixty-four nations currently label, but the U.S. is not among them. Under Harvell's bill, retailers who fail to label could be hit with sanctions for misbranding.

The overwhelming sentiment in support of the measure, though, has done nothing to curb the intense opposition to the bill from groups representing retail grocers and big agriculture. The Maine Farm Bureau Association, where John Olson is executive secretary, contends the measure would hurt non-organic, conventional farmers who don't grow GMO crops.

"I don't think that they realize when they sell their non-GMO, non-organic sweet corn that they have to have a paper trail with that," Olson said. "They have to sign an affidavit that it's not from a GMO seed. And that has to go to all of their vendors and all of there retailers and all of their distributors. I think many farmers would say that's an unnecessary burden."

Many mainstream grocers, meantime, says GMO labeling would increase their costs, which they would then be forced to pass on to consumers. The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee will now digest the public testimony and begin work sessions on the bill in the coming weeks.


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