House subcommittee begins work on GMO labeling bill
Bonnie Wright, of Salem, left, hands out literature with Dave Stewart, right, of Rochester, following a house subcommittee work session for HB-660-FN, the bill requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods, on August 13, 2013 at the Legislative Office Building. Wright and Stewart attended the session along with several other members of their grassroots organization, New Hampshire Right to Know GMOs, who all wore hand made t-shirts supporting their cause. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Two months after his state passed legislation requiring labels on genetically engineered foods, Maine Rep. Lance Harvell, the bill’s chief sponsor, pitched his case yesterday for why New Hampshire lawmakers should follow suit.
“If you want to make the American people potentially a lab experiment, at least let them know what’s going on,” Harvell told members of a New Hampshire House subcommittee, as they began work on a similar bill introduced and retained earlier this year.
New Hampshire’s bill, which would take effect July 1 of next year, would require labels on all foods produced entirely or partially through genetic engineering, whereby an organism’s gene composition is altered to give it certain characteristics, such as an ability to ward off pests or disease. Though not in the bill’s language, subcommittee members indicated yesterday they would add an exemption for meat, dairy and eggs, which would be difficult to trace for genetically modified inputs, such as altered feed.
The subcommittee is also considering adding a “trigger” that would prevent the law from taking effect until a number of New England states adopt similar legislation – a move intended to deter large-scale producers from pulling their goods from any one state’s grocery shelves. The bill in Maine, as well as one Connecticut legislators recently passed and signed into law and one now pending in Vermont, each have triggers. Harvell, a Republican, acknowledged yesterday that this made for at least part of his interest in the fate of New Hampshire’s bill.
Subcommittee members voiced an array of anxieties yesterday about the bill’s potential effects on farmers and consumers, and on whether it would likely lead to litigation from large-scale producers and biotech companies.
Harvell’s response to the last concern: Probably, but you wouldn’t be alone.
“If Monsanto hasn’t sued you yet, stand in line,” he said, referencing the biotech giant and leading producer of genetically modified seed.
Who would win any hypothetical legal battle is anyone’s guess, Harvell added, noting that corporate interests wouldn’t have invested so many resources trying to defeat his bill – and those that have been or are being considered in dozens of other states – had they been certain of the strength of their case.
“If you’re so sure about this being unconstitutional, why don’t you just lay off, let the state pass it, hammer them in court as the example for everyone else to see, and then walk away?” he asked subcommittee members. “They don’t really want to go (to court) any more than we do. If they lose, right – if the other side loses once – it’s all 50 states can say, ‘Fair game.’ ”
But with no scientific proof or federal indication to date that genetically engineered plants pose health risks, Rep. Robert Haefner, a Hillsboro Republican, said his concern was that the law would imply that such foods are unsafe to consume, which could lead to additional litigation from producers.
It was a point that Robert Johnson, policy director for the New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation, which opposes mandated labeling, reiterated after the meeting. What’s more, Johnson said, such inferences obscure the potential benefits that genetic engineering provide, such as reduced need for pesticides, added protection against soil erosion and improved crop yields. Opponents of genetic engineering often contend that such technology in fact harms soil conditions and weakens crop variety.
The meeting drew a packed room of more than 50 spectators, some sporting buttons and T-shirts in support of the bill, though none of them spoke as the subcommittee did not take any public comment.
Work on the bill is scheduled to continue throughout the fall, and Rep. Peter Bixby, a Democrat from Strafford and subcommittee chairman, said he had lined up at least two speakers for future sessions, including a consumer advocate and Gary Hirshberg, the chairman of Stonyfield Farm and a
staunch and vocal proponent of labeling. The next session is Sept. 3, Bixby said.
(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319,
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)