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Progressive Farming - Maine Farm to Food

Let’s embrace GMO technology’s potential, not mislead consumers with label

Maine legislators once again are debating the hot topic of labeling foods made using genetically modified seeds. It’s an unnecessary discussion and is not in the best interest of Maine’s farmers, consumers, retailers and businesses, all of whom will feel a negative impact.

Two years ago Maine’s lawmakers passed a law that would force manufacturers to label GMO foods if four other contiguous New England states did the same. Now some lawmakers, through LD 991, want to remove that four-state trigger — a move that serves no purpose and disadvantages Mainers.

As an agronomist, vegetable grower and crop consultant, I’m intimately familiar with food safety issues and growing techniques and provide direct services to dozens of farms — organic and traditional.

Genetically modifying seed is not an issue of food safety. The technology has undergone stringent testing, none of which has shown any negative health impact, leading every leading scientific organization — from the Food and Drug Administration to the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization and many others — to endorse the technology.

The FDA and and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are the ones that create standards as to what needs to be on food labels in our country. They base those decisions on whether the ingredients can impact our health — for good or bad. They have deemed foods derived using genetic modification to be as safe and nutritious as foods made using traditional seed and, thus, there is no need to label GMO foods.

Importantly, whether you believe labeling is necessary or not, everyone in Maine should be able to farm with the same freedoms and marketability as anyone else in the U.S. This is an issue that should be dealt with at the federal level, not the state level. A patchwork of individual states passing variations of labeling laws isn’t feasible. What may require labeling for production or distribution in one state might not in another and vice versa. To require our farmers to label their products when others across the country don’t have to is unfair and economically harmful.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and key federal lawmakers have made a federal solution a top priority. Their efforts could end up superseding any state law, so it only makes sense to let that work play out.

According to the USDA, Maine farmers grow 80 different types of crops, the primary ones being dairy products, chicken eggs and potatoes. In 2011, the Maine Policy Review published an article titled “Maine Food System: An Overview and Assessment,” which stated that while we rank eighth in the nation for potato production we have only 4 percent of the market share.

Last year, the FDA approved six varieties of genetically modified potatoes and two varieties of apples. On apples, the trait reduces browning when they are cut making them more suitable for places like a school lunch program. On potatoes, one of the traits reduces the level of acrylamides released, which is a concern for fried potato products. Another reduces black spots caused by bruising, and like the apples these potatoes stay white longer when cut or peeled. This leads to less waste.

Do we really want — or need — to increase costs for our potato and apple farmers by forcing them to label their foods “GMO” when, not only are they perfectly safe, but they also have some some positive health impacts? We want to increase our market share, not decrease it.

The four contiguous state compromise achieved in the current law is about as palatable as we can take. If Maine lawmakers take that away, we will be left on our own, asking manufacturers and food producers to label just for us. Keep in mind, we import 80 percent of our food in Maine. The costs associated with labeling that will be passed onto our families are akin to a food tax, and that’s if manufacturers decide to distribute to our small state.

This technology could help be an economic driver for our farmers. It cuts down on pesticide use and reduces water use while, simultaneously, allowing farmers to produce higher yields. We should be embracing it.

Forcing our food producers to label their produce infers the product is unsafe, when it is not. That’s misleading and unfair to everyone in Maine.

Lauchlin Titus is a Certified Professional Agronomist and owner of AG Matters, LLC. He lives in Vassalboro.