Know Your GMOs

By Clem Nilan, General Manager

The issue of GMO labeling is a hot topic around the State House these days – as you’ve probably heard, there are bills in both the Vermont House and the Senate that would mandate labeling foods containing genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs). The House version of the bill, H.112, is sponsored by an incredible 50 of 150 representatives including Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives.

This year the bill has a good chance to pass – unlike a similar bill introduced last year, this year the GMO labeling bill was introduced earlier in the session and has broad popular support. As part of a City Market poll last May, an overwhelming 95% of our Members favored GMO labeling. Vermont-wide polls have shown 97% support and national polls have shown 90% support for GMO labeling.

Last month, I was honored to support the bill by testifying before Vermont’s House Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products. The experience was eye-opening to the political realities of the effort and I want to share the insights I gained with you all.

On the day of my testimony, I shared the floor with the Vermont Assistant Attorney General. According to her testimony, the consumer support for GMO labeling is not enough to justify this bill. The consumer’s interest knowing about GMO ingredients is considered merely “consumer curiosity”, and is probably not, by itself, a valid legal footing. If the bill were to be passed into law, it is generally thought that Vermont would face a lawsuit from biotechnology companies. According to the Attorney General’s office, something more compelling than “consumer curiosity” (such as legitimate health concerns) must be shown to justify a GMO labeling bill.

With the threat of a lawsuit, the Attorney General’s presentation emphasized an aversion to risk. If Vermont passes a bill and biotechnology companies sue, the losing party would have to pick up the legal bills. Despite overwhelming public support, the Governor and the Attorney General’s Office are fearful of this risk.

California’s recent GMO labeling effort (Proposition 37) was ultimately defeated by a slew of negative ads funded by Monsanto (over $8 million), DuPont (over $4 million) and Dow Chemical Company ($2 million). Although these biotechnology companies succeeded in defeating Proposition 37, the defeat has instigated a public furor over the misinformation and extraordinary level of corporate spending.

More recently, supporters in Vermont have been gathering through public forums presented by the Vermont Right to Know GMOs Coalition, a partnership between NOFA-VT, VPIRG and Rural Vermont. City Market co-sponsored their February 28 forum at UVM’s Ira Allen Chapel, along with Slow Food UVM, Chelsea Green Publishing and Ben & Jerry’s. The crowd learned about the process for passing a bill in Vermont, the current labeling legislation and how we can all get involved in the process. Speakers from VPIRG and Rural Vermont noted that 20 states currently have active GMO labeling legislation in the works and another 10 states are considering legislation. Andrea Stander, Executive Director for Rural Vermont, indicated that groups in these states are working together to make sure the legislation is as consistent as possible. The idea is to level the playing field for manufacturers who may have to label products in different states.

Presenters from the Coalition offered information that differs from the testimony I heard earlier in the month at the House Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products. The Coalition feels that there are some clear factual and legal distinctions between what occurred with the case to label products with rBGH (bovine growth hormone) and the current pending legislation to label GMO products. They agree that the State does need to show an interest greater than just “consumer curiously,” but indicate that legitimate and legal concerns can include preventing the deception of consumers, protecting human health, and protecting the environment.

Our country still operates under the fundamental principle of a democracy run by the people and for the people. We don't exist to ensure the profits of the biochemical companies. Families have a right to make informed decisions about the food that goes into their children's bodies.

Interested in this legislation and getting more involved? Visit the “GMO Action Center” page on the Vermont Right to Know GMOs Coalition’s website. They suggest signing their online petition, contacting your legislator, writing letters to newspapers editorial pages, and printing and posting their campaign poster. The Coalition offers up assistance and tools to make this easy; if you’re interested in this legislation, please get involved.