There’s a nationwide push to require labels for foods that contain genetically modified organisms, and Maine is at the forefront.

Early last year, Maine became the second state to adopt a law requiring that packages of food with genetically modified organisms carry labels indicating the product was “produced with genetic engineering.” Maine joined Connecticut in passing a label requirement, and Vermont followed suit soon after.

But in Maine and Connecticut, the label requirements won’t take effect until four other states adopt similar requirements. Under Maine’s law, the four other states must be contiguous, meaning the route to a label requirement winds through New Hampshire and three other bordering states.

That’s the point of contention in the Maine Legislature this year for advocates of GMO labeling. They are pushing legislation with bipartisan support, LD 991, that would repeal two parts of Maine’s 2014 GMO label law: the provision that keeps the requirement from taking effect without similar laws in four other states and another provision that repeals the law on Jan. 1, 2018, if it hasn’t taken effect.

Only Vermont has enacted a label law that doesn’t depend on other states, but its law faces an uncertain fate. The requirement is set to take effect July 1, but a lawsuit challenging the requirement is still pending.

Because consumers are interested to know whether their food is fully or partially genetically engineered, we’re supportive of their right to know through a label requirement. We’re also supportive of efforts to push back the Maine law’s sunset date. But we’re hesitant to encourage Maine and Vermont go it alone on an issue that requires a full market transformation that two New England states with a combined population of fewer than 2 million can’t compel on their own.

It’s simple for food producers to change a label. But it’s not as simple when they need to separate GMO and non-GMO ingredient streams throughout the production process in order to certify they’re following labeling laws. While added consumer costs might not be substantial in the long run if the market switches to accommodate label laws in multiple states, we worry about the prospect of noticeably higher, short-term food costs in Maine and Vermont if they become the only states with label laws in effect.

The thinking behind GMO label requirements is that consumers have a right to know what’s in their food and its origins. Consumers also have a right to know what a “genetically engineered” label tells them and what it doesn’t.

While the public overwhelmingly believes otherwise, a label that says “produced with genetic engineering” doesn’t indicate there’s a heightened risk to eating the labeled food.

“The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: Consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques,” the American Association for the Advance of Science board of directors wrote in a 2012 statement.

GMOs serve a variety of purposes, from making crops drought-resistant to accelerating their growth. But the most common genetic modification makes crops — especially corn, soy and alfalfa — resistant to herbicides, allowing farmers to use substantial quantities of them to keep pests away. That means GMO labels can be indirect signals to consumers of pesticide use, and a label requirement is one of the few tools states have for this purpose.

And there’s good reason for consumers to want to know about the use of pesticides in producing their food. Last month, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Cancer Research said glyphosate, the most commonly used herbicide in the world, was “ probably carcinogenic to humans.”

It’s far from an admission that food with genetically engineered ingredients is unsafe, but it’s another reason consumers might want to know more about the origins of their food. Reasonable label requirements are a one way to provide that additional information.

Originally Published: Banjor Daily News