Vermont House Passes GMO Labeling Bill

Because+of+the+bill%2C+all+food+products+sold+in+Vermont+that+include+GMOs+will+be+labeled.+%28Courtesy%29
Because of the bill, all food products sold in Vermont that include GMOs will be labeled. (Courtesy)

Because of the bill, all food products sold in Vermont that include GMOs will be labeled. (Courtesy)

Because of the bill, all food products sold in Vermont that include GMOs will be labeled. (Courtesy)

By Harry Cramer

On April 23, the Vermont House approved GMO labeling bill H112 by a margin of 114-30 and Governor Shumlin promised to sign the bill into law. The bill will require genetically modified food products (GMOs) sold in Vermont to be labeled.

“I am proud of Vermont for being the first state in the nation to ensure that Vermonters will know what is in their food,” Shumlin said in a statement.

The bill specifies that any product “partially produced with genetic engineering,” “may be produced with genetic engineering,” or “produced with genetic engineering,” will be considered a GMO, and encompasses all food products in Vermont. The labeling provisions will take effect by July 1, 2016.

Although Connecticut and Maine have passed similar legislation, their implementation is contingent on similar laws passing in other States. Vermont will be the first state to actually implement GMO labeling.

Sixty countries, including all those in the European Union, currently require GMOs to be labeled, and 29 states are considering comparable legislation.

“I am very proud that Vermont is taking the lead in a growing national movement to allow the people of our country to know what is in the food they eat,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said in a press release on Wednesday. Sanders stated that it is “extremely important” that individual states begin labeling initiatives.

Sanders, however, faces an uphill battle. Earlier this year, the Senator pushed for a analogous provision in a federal farm bill, which was eventually defeated. His adversary, the 360-billion dollar packaged food industry, is now lobbying for a bill that would nullify any State legislation mandating GMO labeling.

Roughly 60 to 70 percent of processed foods in the United States contain genetially modified materials. Yet, only half of citizens understood that GMOs are sold in grocery stores, and under a quarter believed they had ever eaten GMOs.

To State Senator Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden), this information gap indicates that the bill is important.

“It is protecting the consumer at the point of consumption from potentially the worst that science has to offer,” Baruth stated.

Justin Prochnow, a Denver-based regulatory attorney, predicts that if enough states pass GMO labeling legislation, the federal government will have to follow suit.

“Once a couple of states pass unqualified GMO labeling laws like the Vermont one – unrestricted – that’s probably going to facilitate it more than anything else,” he said. “…at the end of the day, regardless of whether companies are opposed to it, they don’t want to see different labeling requirements in different states.”

“GMOs aren’t going away,” Prochnow said. “It’s just a question of whether people want to know what’s in there, and it depends on what information you want to believe.”

According to Washington, D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association, unintegrated legislation resulting from a ‘state first’ approach will be ineffective.

“It sets the nation on a costly and misguided path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that will do nothing to advance the safety of consumers,” the Association said in a statement.

Ruth Saunders, International Dairy Foods Association Vice President of Policy and Legislative Affairs, agreed. “This bill would confuse consumers, raise food prices and do nothing to ensure product safety,” Saunders said.

In the State Senate, both Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland) and Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin) voted against the bill. McAllister labeled the bill a ‘scare tactic.’ Sen. McAllister is a dairy farmer, and noted that his industry would suffer disproportionally compared to the alcohol sector, which would not have to label its products. McAllister has not encountered problems with GMOs at his farms.

Flory stated that the bill was not only ineffective, but misleading. “I haven’t received any scientific information that GMOs are bad,” Flory said. “I have received scientific information – as well as from the World Health Organization, AMA (American Medical Association), and various other organizations – stating that there is no indication at all that GMOs are harmful.”

The most common goal of genetic engineering is to increase crop yield. GMOs can have an increased resistance to disease caused by insects or viruses, an increased resistance to herbicides and can grow better in harsher climates. Yet the long-term medical implications for the consumer are largely unknown.

Many supporters of the bill claim that GMOs encourage pesticide use because they can resist the harmful chemicals. Others are concerned that GMOs may adversely affect local ecosystems if they are accidentally released into the wild.

Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for Monsanto, said that GMOs are a crucial technology for supplying the world’s growing population, and to curtail them with discriminatory legislation would be a mistake.

“There have been a number of scientists and experts around the world that say that in order to increase global production of food for a population of basically 9 billion people within the next couple of decades, biotech has to be part of our food system,” Batra said in a statement.

To Batra, genetic engineering is “the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of agriculture.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that GMOs should be assessed on a “case by case basis,” because “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”

According to the World Health Organization, GMOs should be assessed on a “case by case basis,” because “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”

To Michele Simon, Public Health Attorney and President of Eat Drink Politics, this uncertainty is exactly why the bill is so important. “No long-term studies exist on either the safety or benefits of GMO ingredients,” Simon wrote in an article on The Huffington Post. “Indeed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not even require safety studies of genetically engineered foods.”

Ultimately, Simon asserted that the bill reflect a growing push toward greater clarity in the food industry. In the GMO labeling movement, “ … people are demanding more transparency,” Simon said.

Falko Schilling, a Consumer Protection Advocate at Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), agrees with Simon.

“Basically, Vermonters have a right to know what they’re eating,” Schilling said in an interview. “We’re not telling farmers how they can grow their crops. We’re a right to know organization.”

Falko also noted that a majority of Vermonters are behind the bill. According to Falko, VPIRG “knocked on thousands of doors,” and eventually garnered over 30,000 signatures in support of the bill.

Like Sanders, Schilling stressed the importance of the grassroot movement. “Federal legislation would be ideal,” Schilling said, “but it’s just not happening…we’re proud of our state legislature.”

McAllister was also concerned that the bill will be struck down as unconstitutional.

“So we’re gonna spend, between $1.5 to $5 million, and in the end the people who wanted labeling, may not get it,” McAllister said.

McAllister’s concerns are grounded in a similar case from 1994. Legislation mandating labeling for milk treated with artificial growth hormones was struck down as unconstitutional. The legislation violated the First Amendment, because it forced the companies to speak instead of remaining silent.

In response, lawmakers have established a 1.5 million dollar defense fund for the bill. The funds will be raised primarily from appropriations and from settlements awarded to the state, although individuals from all over the world can contribute.

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Vermont House Passes GMO Labeling Bill