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An update on NOFA/Mass’s priority bills in the State Legislature

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 September Issue Newsletter

By Amie Lindenboim

Rep Jim McGovern speaks at press conference, August 2016

The Massachusetts Legislature adjourned just after midnight on August 1, concluding their formal business for the 2015-2016 legislative session. Members will continue to meet in informal session until the end of the year, where typically only non-controversial matters are voted upon.

Significant differences and power struggles between the centrist-leaning House and the more liberal-leaning Senate, combined with lawmakers leaving town for the Democratic and Republican national conventions during the last two weeks of the session, meant an even tighter time crunch than usual this year. In terms of NOFA/Mass’s priority legislation – and really, the priority legislation of many other worthy organizations and interests – progress was made, but no bill managed to break free of committee stagnation and hit the floor for a full vote by both Senate and House.

NOFA/Mass Priority Bills, 2015-2016 Legislative Session (besides the GMO labeling bill) 

Of the bills tabulated above, the Ag Omnibus bill was the only one to pass at least one branch of the legislature. Put together by joint committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture (ENRA), the bill contained provisions that would have (among other things):

  • Allowed state certified raw milk farmers to deliver their milk to contracted consumers
  • Set up a committee of farmers and plumbers to look at drafting agriculture-specific requirements/variances in the state building code
  • Allowed the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to offer some of its land to towns and nonprofits for use as community gardens and farmers’ markets
  • Attempted to clarify what “local” meant in farmers’ markets
  • Allowed non-contiguous nearby parcels of less than five acres each to qualify for agricultural valuation for tax purposes
  • Assessed agricultural land at agricultural value for calculation of the Estate Tax
  • Set up a committee to draft a “Farmland Action Plan”
  • Set up an “Agricultural Resolve and Security Fund”

While all of these provisions failed to make it to a vote in their collective form, we expect many will be revived for the 2017-2018 legislative session, which begins January 4, 2017.

What About GMO Labeling?

NOFA/Mass has devoted a lot of energy over the past few years to passing a GMO labeling bill in MA. We had a great bill, very similar to Vermont’s, and with a level of bipartisan support almost unheard of at the State House. We were this close to passing it!

Then – we were preempted.

Late on Friday, July 29, just after the Democrats held their national convention, President Obama signed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard into law. This law preempts existing labeling laws in VT, ME, and CT, and killed the robust bill that was pending in the Mass. Legislature. While promoted as a mandatory GMO labeling law, it allows manufacturers to use symbols and QR codes (for use with a smartphone) in place of a plain language, on-label statement. Despite these and other failings, the law will have the effect of forcing manufacturers to admit (somewhere) when (some) of their products contain genetically engineered ingredients. Activists’ efforts at the state level, along with outcry over last fall’s passage of a non-mandatory federal labeling law (the “Dark Act”) by the House, successfully prevented a “Darker” scenario.

We were disappointed to learn that nearly half of our House delegation voted for the Roberts “compromise” bill (whereas the entire delegations of our neighbors in CT, VT and ME voted against the non-labeling bill). Representatives Keating, Kennedy, Lynch, Moulton and Tsongas all voted for this sham GMO labeling bill.  To be fair, some seemed to think it was the “best deal they could get” regarding GMO labeling; others referenced the bill’s support from an organization that appeared, to them, to speak for all organic farmers, consumers, and manufactures (hint: It wasn’t NOFA/Mass!).

We are so grateful for Senators Warren and Markey, and for those representatives who voted against the S.764 in the House: Representatives Richard Neal, Jim McGovern, Katherine Clark and Michael Capuano. We especially appreciate the valiant efforts of Congressman Jim McGovern; he repeatedly and vocally underscored the discriminatory and ludicrous nature of a disclosure system relying on digital “QR” codes and 800 numbers.

This fight is far from over. The bill orders the USDA to come up with regulations to enforce the bill, and to conduct a study as to the viability of using QR codes. NOFA/Mass will be following the rulemaking process closely, and will work to influence policymakers to draft the strongest labeling regulations possible. Stay tuned for updates on this process; you may also sign up to receive updates directly from the USDA at https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/gmo.

 

Onward!

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