Why I voted against this particular bill

A debate over food

Last week, the House Environment and Agriculture (A&E) Committee rejected a bill that would have required labeling of GMO foods, that is, foods containing or produced with genetically modified organisms. Prospects for passage of HB660 by the full House are now uncertain if not bleak.

As a member of the E&A committee, I have received tons of emails and phone calls, the lion’s share of impassioned pleas from bill supporters who just want to know what is in the food they eat.

So, what reasonable person could argue with that? How could such a common sense bill not pass?

Well, the problem wasn’t partisan politics. Opponents of the bill were from both sides of the aisle and of the political spectrum. Committee Chair Rep. Tara Sad and myself often represent the most liberal and conservative perspectives, respectively, in the New Hampshire House. We both voted “No.”

Now we must face the ire of our vocal constituents. Worse, are family members like my “Down with FrankenFoods!” sister, and my daughter living in India who has seen first-hand the impact companies like Monsanto have had on agriculture in the third world.

So, what would cause rational politicians to choose a trip to the woodshed over public adoration? We all agreed people should be able to know what is in the food they eat. However, that was not the reason we went to Concord that day. We met to decide if a particular bill on the subject was good public policy. At the end of the day, HB660 fell short.

Lawmakers, after months of study and public comment, learned that the negative consequences of HB660 far outweighed the possible benefits, and worse, the bill would not accomplish the purpose for which it was brought forward. Here are some of the reasons the bill failed:

First, the bill would only apply to some fraction of our food supply. Restaurants are exempt. Farmers are exempt. Small retailers are exempt if they want to take the risk of pleading ignorance.

Furthermore, oils and sugars derived from GMO crops often leave no trace of GMOs by the time they end up in processed foods on the store shelves. So, while HB660 would require labeling of foods made using GMOs, there is really no reliable way to detect them. HB660 leaves a lot of unlabeled GMO foods on the market.

Another problem with the bill was fairness. The only guy in the food supply chain who would be punished for violating HB660 is the retailer, your local grocer. Manufacturers, distributors, and wholesalers are all off the hook.

Next, we had to count the cost. Label mandates at the state level would almost certainly drive up the cost of food and even reduce supply. This is not because of the cost of ink on a box. The grocery industry has told us food makers won’t change their products for our small market. Store shelves in New Hampshire could be half emptied, driving business to neighboring states. Then there’s the collateral damage due to the cost of more government.

Enforcement of a new labeling law under HB660 would fall on the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. They have no expertise or operational infrastructure in this area. They tell us this stuff is always done at the federal level. At the state level that function would have to be created and staffed to investigate and litigate complaints against retailers. The cost estimates go as high as $500,000 annually, absent increased revenue, starving other DHHS programs.

Then, even if we flat funded DHHS, taxpayers would still get hammered because of Constitutional problems. Passage of HB660 would almost certainly cost the state millions of dollars in legal fees defending against lawsuits, lawsuits that many legal experts believe New Hampshire would lose. That’s because the bill likely violates both the First Amendment and the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

What, then, are the consequences of not passing HB660?

Today, you can ask at the farmstand if they are selling you GMO sweet corn. HB660 wouldn’t change that. Of course today you can also ask the same question of Kellogg’s about GMOs in their Corn Flakes. This is not as convenient as reading it on a label. That fact may accelerate the labeling of non-GMOs already happening. There is no law preventing the labeling of foods as non-GMO. As consumer demand rises, so will non-GMO supply as the food industry taps into a growing market akin to organics. Incidentally, organic foods have no GMOs. Oh, and science tells us there have been no documented adverse health effects from eating GMO foods.

Yes, as it turns out, the issue was not as simple as it might first appear. As your representatives, the easy path would have been to simply count emails in favor and against the bill. We could have saved all those trips to Concord. Of course the next logical step would be to fire us and govern by referendum. We live in a democracy, right?

Most ordinary citizens calling us had not even read HB660. And, I can’t blame them. Few have time to study the wide array of policy implications on every topic. That’s why we live in a democratic republic where representatives have a responsibility to research issues and anticipate potential impacts before enacting laws.

The costs and unintended consequences of knee-jerk legislation could be far worse than the problem we are trying to solve. When I think of examples what comes to mind is the Affordable Care Act, a well intentioned law passed along party lines, rushed through Congress before it was understood and fully vetted.

As each new day presents an opportunity for creativity and change we sometimes must choose to “do no harm” and leave well enough alone.

Jim Parison of New Ipswich is a representative from Hillsborough District 25.

I attended every hearing this fall of the House Environment and Agriculture subcommittee that studied HB 660. The subcommittee, who heard hours of testimony, recommended the amended version of HB 660 "ought to pass" to the full House Environment and Agriculture Committee. It is a solid bill that is in line with Maine and Connecticut's bill and the bill in process in Vermont. HB 660 has a "trigger clause" so that NH will not go it alone or have "empty shelves." The bill would go into effect only if several other states also pass a similar law. The amended version of the bill can be seen at http://nofanh.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/HB660-Amended.pdf. All food that is grown from GMOs would have to be labeled. This is true for farmers, producers, and manufacturers. We have few GMO farmers in New Hampshire, but they would be required to label if they grow GMO sweet corn, for example. The onus is on food producers and manufacturers to label their products. Retailers would have to label if they have bulk bins or raw agricultural commodities (not already packaged and labeled for retail sale) that are GMOs. Labeling GMOs is about labeling the production process. Oils and sugars made from genetically modified crops would be labeled, because they are produced using the process of genetic engineering. The amended version of HB 660 has been studied by multiple constitutional lawyers and has been shown to be a strong bill by lawyers familiar with the recent and relevant case law.

It sounds to me that some BioTech Food industry and AgriBusiness lobbyists got their propaganda inserted into Jim Parison's head, despite the best efforts of his sister and daughter.

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