MONTPELIER — Vermont is one step closer to becoming the first state to put mandatory labels on genetically modified food products.
On Friday, the House Agriculture Committee, after weeks of testimony, passed H.112, or the “GMO labeling bill,” by an 8-3 vote. H.112 requires producers to put labels on raw agricultural and processed, packaged food products that are genetically engineered. The bill will go to the House Judiciary Committee for review, then to the floor for a vote.
“It’s a consumer bill,” said Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, a member of the House Agriculture Committee. “It lets people have information that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have deliberately modified DNA — scientists insert genetic material from other species to create a plant or animal with different hormones, proteins or chemicals meant to do anything from repel insects to withstand certain climates. In Vermont, most GMO food products for human consumption are packaged and processed foods, though most of the state’s feed crops grown for animal consumption come from GMO seeds.
In answer to concerns that the dairy market would be negatively affected by GMO labeling, milk and meat are exempt from labeling, as are prepared-to-eat food products such as fresh bakery items. Most cows are fed GMO feed. In the unusual event that an animal itself had been genetically modified directly, it would have to be labeled.
The bill has large legislative support, with 50 members of the House and 11 senators signing on as cosponsors. Nevertheless, versions of a GMO labeling bill were defeated in 2011 and 2012. And the attorney general’s office has signaled its wariness about the bill.
Testifying before the House Agriculture Committee earlier this month, Assistant Attorney Gen. Bridget Asay told lawmakers that there was a substantial likelihood that biotech companies would sue the state over the legislation. The outcome of those lawsuits, she said, would be extremely uncertain. If the state loses, it is at risk of having to use taxpayer money to pay the bill for the opposition’s lawyers.
In 1994, for example, Vermont passed a law requiring that producers disclose when cows had been injected with a controversial, genetically modified growth hormone. Monsanto sued, and the law was struck down in federal court.
To win a lawsuit, the state would likely have to prove that it had an interest in protecting its citizens’ health by mandating labels. Otherwise, companies could claim that mandatory labeling violated their First Amendment rights.
Stevens says that there is an understanding that the state would get sued if the legislation were to pass, as biotech giant Monsanto promised to do when similar bills were under consideration last year. But H.112’s supporters say that this bill is designed to be defensible against lawsuits.
Stevens said that while GMO labeling in Vermont would not do much on its own — food products often cross state lines — there is a growing movement for labeling. Internationally, the European Union, China and Saudi Arabia, among several dozen others, require GMO food products to be labeled.
Stevens believes that in the absence of federal leadership from the FDA and USDA, it’s up to the states to take the initiative.
“It’s certainly a federal issue,” Stevens explained. “But if the states don’t step up to register protest, who’s to say anyone would?”
Stevens said that the sticking point of the bill on Friday morning was over the date that the legislation would take effect. The final version, which left the House Ag Committee early Friday afternoon, states that the legislation is effective 18 months after at least two other states adopt similar bills, or 24 months after its passage in Vermont — whichever comes first.
“That gives Vermont specialty foods folks an opportunity to retool and to use up old stock that wouldn’t comply with the state law,” Stevens said.
Stevens voted yes on the GMO bill in the Ag. Committee. Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, voted no.
ADDISON COUNTY FORUM
At the American Legion in Middlebury last Thursday night, around 60 people gathered to hear activists with the Vermont Right to Know grassroots campaign — a collaborative effort of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, Rural Vermont and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group — answer questions about the bill and offer advice as to how Addison County citizens could help the bill through the legislative process.
The crowd was told that 90 percent of Vermonters supported GMO labeling and were asked to contact their legislators as H.112 and its sister bill in the senate, S.89, worked their way through the Legislature.
The audience also heard from Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company, who has been an outspoken supporter of GMO labeling.
Though Greenfield was quick to point out that Ben & Jerry’s is owned by Unilever (a company that spent nearly half a million dollars defeating California’s GMO labeling bill) and he and co-founder Ben Cohen no longer have much authority, he has nonetheless testified to the Legislature in support of the bill.
Unilever, Greenfield said, had respected the co-founders’ right to have Ben & Jerry’s “loudly support the (GMO labeling) bill in the Legislature.”
“The issue for the company is the consumer’s right to know,” Greenfield said. “Ben & Jerry’s has always tried to be transparent.”
About 20 percent of the ice cream company’s products currently incorporate GMO products, mostly corn syrup for the flavorful swirls in the ice cream. The company has pledged to transition to 100-percent non-GMO products by the end of 2013, and Greenfield hopes that they can serve as an example for other companies.
“We’re going to do it without changing the cost,” he added.
The audience also heard from Glenn Lower, the general manager of the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, which cosponsored the forum. He offered the co-op, and its 4,000-strong membership, as a resource for community members interested in engaging more with the GMO labeling push. He was also able to speak about the challenges from a retailer’s perspective; without mandatory GMO labeling, he said, the burden was on the retailer — not the producer — to keep customers informed.
“I think it’s a definite challenge for retailers,” Lower said. “It’s a bit of a myth that there are no GMOs at the co-op, and there are. I’m sure there are many of them.”
Back at the Statehouse, Stevens said there were many reasons that the bill was good for Vermonters, but consumer knowledge was at the forefront.
“I think we seem to have a disconnect in our food system,” he said. “Our industry and science interests aren’t aligned with the interests of human beings. My vote is a statement of support for rebalancing, a little bit, that status quo.”