AUGUSTA — The national debate over genetically modified food moved to the State House on Tuesday, pitting agribusiness, grocers and some Maine farmers against a well-organized group of organic farmers and national food-safety advocates seeking to opt out of the “GMO experiment.”

More than 100 people signed up to testify before lawmakers on L.D. 718, a bill that would require food retailers to label products containing genetically modified seeds or ingredients. Sponsored by Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, the bill also would prohibit retailers from labeling a product as “natural” if it contained GMOs. GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.”

Current Maine law allows retailers to voluntarily label their products as certified organic or “GMO-free.”

Supporters of L.D. 718 argued that consumers have the right to know if they’re buying food that has been bioengineered – its DNA has been spliced with that of an unrelated plant, animal, bacterium or virus. 

Opponents countered that the bill unfairly stigmatizes farmers who sell genetically modified produce despite a dearth of scientific research proving that such products are any less healthful than those conventionally grown. They also cited a 2012 position by the American Medical Association that found no evidence that bioengineered foods are more dangerous than conventional foods.

Advocates of the bill said Tuesday that scientific evidence is emerging that genetically modified foods can increase health risks and food allergies. They said there is a lack of scientific studies proving health risks because federal regulators have left testing up to the biotech industry that is producing and profiting from genetically modified products, which have been in the domestic food supply for nearly 20 years.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates genetically modified foods but does not approve them. The agency assumes the foods are safe until confronted with evidence that they’re not.

“If you’re not going to test it, at least label it,” Harvell said. “If we’re involved in this grand experiment of being turned into lab rats, we should at least know about it.” 

Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union, the policy advocacy division of Consumer Reports, has worked on labeling legislation in Congress. He told lawmakers Tuesday that federal regulators have ceded review of genetically modified products to ensure that the industry — not the government — is legally liable if health problems surface.  

Jon Olson, speaking on behalf of the Maine Farm Bureau, said the bill would be costly to farmers and sellers, who would need to review affidavits to determine if the food they’re selling contains genetically modified ingredients.

Olson also said the bill would “falsely alarm” the public that GMO foods are harmful.

“We need to provide opportunity for all farmers, not take sides on farming practices,” he said. 

At least 18 other states are considering similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Congress is also considering a GMO-labeling bill, a proposal that supporters acknowledge faces long odds because of opposition from businesses, biotech food producers and agribusiness groups.

Similarly, the Maine proposal has been the subject of behind-the-scenes legislative maneuvering between supporters and opponents, who began wrangling over which committee should hear the bill, the Agricultural Affairs Committee or the Labor Committee.

Lawmakers on the agriculture panel heard the bill Tuesday. The Legislature has previously reviewed, and defeated, four GMO-labeling bills.

However, supporters believe that the tide is turning. They cite growing international mistrust of genetically modified foods. Currently, 62 countries, including the European Union, have labeling laws.

Consumers’ growing preference for organic foods also has influenced some retailers.

Earlier this year, the Whole Foods retail grocery chain told its suppliers that they had until 2018 to label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients. 

Labeling laws face an uphill climb, despite polls showing support for them. California voters narrowly defeated a labeling bill in 2012. The biotech food products industry outspent advocates, $45 million to $6.7 million, according to published reports.

In Maine, advocates of L.D. 718 include the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association, which has enlisted the expertise of one of the state’s top lobbying firms, Preti Flaherty. The organic farmers group brought a large crowd to the public hearing, including Samuel Kaymen, co-founder of Stonyfield yogurt.

An industry coalition opposed to the bill includes the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Farm Bureau, with backing from agribusiness giant Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

The industry coalition has hired lobbyist Robert Tardy and start-up Red Hill Strategies, a Portland consulting firm headed by Republican operative Lance Dutson and Mike Leavitt, the former chief of staff for the Republican National Committee.  

Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, active campaign donors to lawmakers in agriculture-heavy states, are also involved in the congressional debate.

Monsanto managed to insert a rider in the recent congressional budget bill. Critics say the rider prohibits the U.S. Department of Agriculture from halting production of a genetically engineered crop once it’s in the ground even if studies prove the crop could be harmful.

The competing influential interests make passage of L.D. 718 uncertain despite its having more than 120 legislative co-sponsors, composed of Democrats, independents and libertarian Republicans.

Opponents on Tuesday argued that the bill violates constitutional provisions on interstate commerce allowing companies to avoid disclosing whether their products are genetically engineered.  

Hansen, with Consumers Union, rebutted the constitutional argument. He said there are more than 200 state-enacted food labeling laws, including for maple syrup grades and kosher foods. No state has enacted a comprehensive GMO-label law, although Alaska recently passed a resolution against genetically modified salmon. 

The agriculture committee on April 16 sent a letter to Attorney General Janet Mills seeking review of the constitutionality of the bill. She has not yet responded. 

Constitutional concerns also have surfaced in Vermont, where the Legislature is poised to enact a labeling law. Monsanto has threatened to sue the state if it passes the bill.

Monsanto’s history of litigation was noted by Harvell, the bill’s sponsor. He said he is skeptical that the company will adequately test its products.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]

On Twitter: @stevemistler

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