Last month, Connecticut grabbed headlines around the country when it became the first state in America to pass a mandatory labeling law for genetically-engineered foods. At the time, I warned anti-GE activists to hold their applause, because the law was only symbolic — unless four other states passed similar legislation it meant nothing.
Some readers criticized my dismissal of the legislation, pointing out that Connecticut is a small state that couldn’t possibly take on the biotech industry on its own. “Even though it’s only words on paper, Connecticut is taking a stand,” they said. Well, it turns out my opinion might have been a bit premature.
Despite learning that food companies have a secret plan to make it illegal for states to pass anti-labeling laws, Maine has joined Connecticut in passing a GE labeling law. Signed by Gov. Paul LePage in early January, the bill requires food producers to label foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. Like Connecticut, Maine’s GE labeling law doesn’t go into effect unless five contiguous states, including New Hampshire, pass labeling laws. But it may not take as long as we think.
“American consumers want the right to know what is in the food they eat, plain and simple. The food movement has created the political will to label genetically engineered foods and states are beginning to respond,” said Rebecca Spector, who spearheads state GE labeling legislative efforts for the Center for Food Safety, in a press release.
Although we’re all itching for states to grab the biotech by the horns, so to speak, it’s important to see the end game: With these symbolic laws, states are hoping to put pressure on a Congress that up until now has refused to consider a mandatory GE labeling law. According to the Kennebec Journal, ”the Maine bill brought together such factions as libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats, creating strong support.” Grassroots advocates are working to create similar support in other states as well. In 2013, 50 bills were introduced requiring labeling in 26 states.
In the quest to add three more states to the GE labeling roster, New Hampshire will be the key. Although such a bill failed in committee late last year, the New Hampshire Legislature will take it up again this winter. If New Hampshire manages to pass a labeling bill, we will have 3 out of 5 of the required states, and GE labeling will be over the tipping point in the Northeast. The stage will be set for a significant part of the country to fight against the biotech industry, a prospect that has bullies like Monsanto shaking in their boots.
So I take it back. The first GE labeling law in the country did mean something — but only if we keep the movement growing in New England. Let’s fight to make sure New Hampshire is next. Maybe someday soon, the U.S. will join 64 nations – including China, South Africa and all countries in the European Union — that currently require GE foods to be labeled.
Image via Thinkstock