|Ted Quaday, MOFGA's executive director, talks with Gov. LePage and with Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show. Photo by Heather Spalding.
By Ted Quaday,
MOFGA Executive Director
In January, MOFGA and our allies gathered in Augusta to celebrate our win in the drive for a labeling law for genetically engineered (GE) foods. On January 9, 2014, Governor Paul LePage delivered on a promise he made last summer and affixed a symbolic signature to the measure (LD 718) enabling the Right to Know Act to become law. It was a historic moment in Maine. With approval, we became just the second state in the nation to require labels on GE foods (sometimes called GMOs, or genetically modified organisms).
To mark the occasion and to thank our legislative and campaign allies, we assembled in the Hall of Flags at the State House with MOFGA members, activists and lawmakers from across the state. The bill’s two lead sponsors, Rep. Lance Harvell (R-Farmington) and Sen. Christopher Johnson (D-District 20), spoke, as did MOFGA board member Sam May. The basic message was one of cooperation and the value of finding common ground.
As Sen. Johnson said during the celebration, “The dedication to common purpose, the willingness to compromise when necessary, and the position at the outset that this was not a partisan issue got us to where we are today.”
Indeed, the tremendous surge of support for the Right to Know bill – a typically controversial measure wherever it’s introduced – was perhaps unprecedented. Start with popular opinion polling showing that more than 90 percent of Maine’s consumers favored GE labeling. Add to that the fact that the state Legislature overwhelming supported the measure, with 123 legislative co-sponsors signing onto the bill. When the measure was voted on in the House, the tally was 141 to 4; in the Senate the 35 to 0 vote sealed the deal.
But to gain approval, a key concession was made: Our law would not take effect until four other contiguous states approve similar measures.
Last year, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to approve GE labeling. So now we need to gain approval in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. In January, the N.H. House of Representatives voted 185-162 against a labeling measure, despite a poll showing 90 percent of N.H. consumers want labeling. A massive campaign of misinformation apparently swayed legislators. As we went to press, there was talk of reviving the legislative debate in the state Senate.
Our law gives us five years to get labeling passed in the other states. We have time, and in Maine we have sent a clear, strong message to others working on Right to Know bills. It can be done, and done well. But you are going to have to dig deep, and you will very likely need to compromise to make it happen. That’s sometimes not the easiest message to digest, but in the rough and tumble of the legislative process, that willingness to give and take is the key to carving out the incremental steps that have moved us to this watershed moment in Maine.
Repeatedly during our celebration, speakers noted the key role MOFGA played in rallying popular support for the bill and in bringing folks together to find common ground on the labeling issue. MOFGA was the hub around which the campaign whirled, and we worked closely with our allies to make it happen. We thank them once again, and we celebrate our victory with gusto.