If you’ve been to a grocery store lately, you have no doubt seen some products labeled GMO-free, referring to the absence of genetically modified organisms. While the scientific consensus says that products containing genetically modified materials are entirely safe for us to eat, some food producers have chosen to label their products to appeal to the niche of consumers who prefer non-GMO ingredients.
Two years ago, the Maine Legislature considered legislation requiring that all foods sold in Maine come with labels as to whether the product contains genetically modified ingredients. Legislators wisely understood that, as a small state, Maine doesn’t have a large enough economy to enact such a requirement on its own. If Maine were to mandate these labels unilaterally, food manufacturers would have to produce labels specifically for Maine, driving up the cost to Maine consumers of many popular foods, and perhaps even jeopardizing the very availability of some of these products in our state.
So our Legislature reasonably required that we not act unilaterally. Rather, a compromise embraced by Maine farmers, organic interests, small businesses, legislative leaders of both parties and the LePage administration established a “trigger” mechanism. Before our law will kick in, at least five contiguous states must pass similar legislation by 2018 — ensuring at least a five-state regional economy to cushion the economic cost to Mainers.
Since 2013, GMO labeling bills have been introduced in the Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York legislatures, but none have been enacted into law. Meanwhile, the Connecticut Legislature, which also passed a labeling law with trigger provisions in 2013, rejected an attempt this spring to repeal the trigger for just one category of food. So it is clear that even states with more population and larger economies than Maine recognize the down side of mandating labeling at the state level.
Unfortunately, one national special interest group is now targeting Maine’s new law, seeking to unravel the compromise that has been in effect less than 18 months. This outside group’s legislative allies have introduced a bill to repeal the trigger and sunset provisions. Should this bill pass, the results for Maine’s families and businesses would be disastrous, robbing Maine of the safety net of a five-state regional economy, and isolating Maine’s economy in a way that will harm Maine consumers with higher prices and Maine small businesses with a regulatory burden not borne by their counterparts in other states.
Hopefully, our Legislature will not turn its back on the thoughtful compromise that produced the trigger and sunset provisions. These were reasonable solutions in the best interests of Mainers, crafted in an effort to bring a common-sense resolution to an emotionally driven debate. We shouldn’t discard that compromise merely because a national special interest group with a narrow agenda is unhappy that it has not been able to convince five Northeastern states to pass labeling legislation.
Rather, we should be grateful that our legislators embraced this compromise. If they had gone the route of isolating Maine’s economy by requiring labeling in a go-it-alone approach, our working families and small businesses would be the ones shouldering the burden. If our legislators act rashly by blowing up the compromise now, that could still happen. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail.
Ben Gilman is a senior government relations specialist with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. He lives in Gorham.