When you think of New England you don’t normally think about agriculture, and for good reason. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island rank 47th, 48th and 49th in the country in farm production, just barely ahead of Alaska. Yet the nation’s agricultural eyes are now turned to New England because a number of state-level initiatives in this region are threatening to push the entire country toward mandatory labeling requirements for foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Labeling GMOs is highly popular in New England, in part because the farming sector is so small. In June of this year, the Connecticut House of Representatives passed a GMO labeling bill by a margin of 134-3. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the bill, making Connecticut the first state in the country to mandate GMO labeling. Yet Connecticut’s legislature had specified that, for this law to take effect, four other states, including at least one bordering Connecticut, must pass a similar bill. In addition, similar legislation must be passed by a combination of northeastern states with an aggregate population of at least 20 million people. Recent evidence suggests these two hurdles are not likely to be overcome any time soon, and even if they are overcome that won’t be the end of the story.
The Connecticut law has triggered dramatic contests in neighboring states, often with out-of-state interests fighting through local proxies. Agribusiness and biotech industry organizations are voicing strong opposition to mandatory labeling, while activist organizations, such as the Center for Food Safety and the Just Label It campaign, want the measures to go forward. In August, a well-connected nation-wide liberal advocacy group, MoveOn, joined the battle by launching a “GMO Labeling Now” action that includes petition deliveries, speak outs, rallies and so-called Monsanto Challenge taste tests. These tests show the reaction of ordinary citizens on the street when confronted with two “unlabeled” ears of sweet corn. All the citizen knows is that one is from a local organic farm, while the other is described as GMO corn “spliced with a pesticidal bacteria.” You can guess the reaction.
It is too early to know which side will win the street-level battle. In the state of Maine, however, pro-labeling groups have learned that a final policy victory will not come easily. I spend my summer months in Maine, a state that boasts the country’s best lobsters and native blueberries. But Maine is also filled with small organic farmers. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), formed in 1971, is the oldest and largest state organic organization in the country. So last spring, when the state legislature considered a GMO labeling bill, close to 200 organic farmers and consumer activists were on hand chanting, “No, No, GMO.” In June the measure passed the Maine House by an impressive vote of 141 to 4. The Maine Senate also gave unanimous support, but then things got interesting.
Conservative Republican Gov. Paul LePage claimed he supported the measure, but said he would not sign it until the next legislative session due to concerns he had about its “constitutionality,” since interstate commerce falls under federal rather than state jurisdiction. The Maine attorney general had warned the governor that a mandatory labeling measure would be challenged in court, involving the state in long and costly litigation.
Internal resistance to labeling has also slowed the campaign in all three states that border Connecticut. In New York, a state assembly bill similar to the Connecticut measure died at the committee level last June. In Massachusetts, my home state, both of the mandatory GMO labeling bills introduced in the 2013 state legislative session also failed to get out of committee. In Rhode Island, the state House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare set aside a labeling bill, suggesting the need “for further study.” As for Vermont, the House of Representatives passed a mandatory labeling bill by a vote of 99-42 in June, and this measure is scheduled to go to the state Senate next January.
In the end, this issue will probably not be resolved in New England by state legislatures and governors, or even by ballot issue voters in Western states like California (where Prop 37 narrowly failed last fall) or Washington (where Initiative 522 will be on the ballot in November). In American politics, it is usually a federal court that has the final say. So far, our federal courts have allowed mandatory labels only for things consumers need to know, rather than things they merely want to know. In 1996, a Federal Circuit Court struck down as unconstitutional a Vermont statute requiring labels on milk produced using rBST. The Court was “sympathetic” to the Vermont consumers who wanted to know which products derive from rBST-treated herds, but it said, “Were consumer interest alone sufficient, there is no end to the information that states could require manufacturers to disclose about their production methods,” and this was a Pandora’s box the court did not want to see opened.