MONTPELIER – Sen. Bobby Starr gives little thought to whether there are any genetically modified organisms in the food he eats. The retired Northeast Kingdom truck driver rarely is swayed when organizations blitz legislators about a cause. As chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he came to the Statehouse in January dubious of a bill that would require labeling of foods that contain GMOs.
But by mid-February, Starr’s committee had voted out a bill, and he was a supporter. That bill is on the way to the Governor’s Office to become law, moving Vermont in place to become the first state to require labeling.
Along the way, Starr and his fellow legislators were bombarded with phone calls, emails and postcards urging them to pass the bill. Veteran lawmakers from Derby to Bennington, Georgia to Brattleboro who typically are unimpressed by the deluge of rote form letters they receive for various causes found that these messages came from real people they knew in their communities.
“What it came down to is, the people I represent wanted it,” said Starr, a Democrat who represents relatively conservative Essex and Orleans counties. “In the end I said, ‘Well, individual rights are more important than an industry’s rights.’”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, a Democrat from also relatively conservative Bennington, said he was driving down a back road near his house when he saw a sign calling for GMO labeling. “I said, ‘Boy this is real. They want this.’”
Despite the threat of a lawsuit hanging over their heads from food manufacturers, key lawmakers went from skeptical to sold on a labeling law within months because a well-organized, well-funded and seasoned group of supporters launched one of the biggest grassroots efforts the state has seen.
How’d they do it?
A combination of factors came together to take the labeling bill to the finish line, said Dave Rogers, policy director at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, who was among those working for the bill. Luck helped, he said, but so did an unrelenting group effort, extensive use of social media that has changed the speed with which causes spread, and Vermont’s two decades of experience in resisting the use of genetic engineering in agriculture.
“We have like a 20-year history of working on these issues,” Rogers said. “We have a whole population of educated activists.”
A 2012 Statehouse public hearing about the GMO labeling issue offered a hint of what was to come. Some 300 people crowded into the House chamber. All of those testifying spoke in favor of labeling. The fervor brewing that night had been steeping for more than a decade.
Opposition to GMOs in Vermont dates back to the earliest days of the process, which began producing crops in the 1990s. In 2003, 37 Vermont towns passed resolutions at town meeting that demanded the labeling of genetically modified foods.
The next year, lawmakers passed a first-in the-nation bill requiring that GMO seeds be labeled — a law that apparently has never been enforced. Amy Shollenberger, a lobbyist hired by the Vermont Right to Know Coalition who has been working on GMO issues for more than a decade, noted that the 2004 bill passed the Legislature 10 years to the day from when the Senate took its vote this month on the food-labeling bill.
In 2006, Gov. Jim Douglas vetoed a bill that would have made seed manufacturers liable for damages from genetically modified seeds that drift onto organic farms.
Although little came from some of those efforts, the sentiment behind them never died.
After labeling legislation failed to move in 2011, Will Allen, manager of Cedar Circle Farm and Education Center in Thetford, said he realized Vermont needed a more refined bill similar to those that were then in the works in California and Washington. In 2012, he pulled together four groups to form the Vermont Right to Know Coalition to work on passing a labeling bill.
Those groups — Cedar Circle Farm, NOFA, Vermont Public Interest Research Group and Rural Vermont — have stuck together for three years. Unlike many such coalitions, Allen said, this one worked.
“It’s not that we didn’t have disagreements,” Allen said, but, “I think everybody believed we could do it.”
Rep. Kate Webb, a Shelburne Democrat, introduced a new labeling bill in 2012, already well into the second year of a biennium. The bill had no chance of passing the Legislature, but supporters were undaunted. “All we’re doing is seeing if this thing flies,” Allen said of the late-session strategy.
That bill started taking flight a year later. Allen’s coalition had a lot to do with getting the measure off the ground.
With help from friends
All the members of the Vermont Right to Know Coalition had experience on the issue. Each had extensive and varied membership lists that provided names of potential supporters across Vermont. They had money, too, thanks in part to national organizations that saw Vermont as a foothold for the GMO-labeling movement across the country.
Allen said the coalition took in $750,000 to $1 million, about half from in-state and half from outside supporters, which included Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, the Organic Consumers’ Fund and Mercola Corp.
That money helped pay for newspaper advertisements across Vermont and for legal and scientific expertise to help persuade Vermont lawmakers. Those efforts largely were behind-the-scenes. Vermont advocates discouraged national groups from swooping in with the kind of media blitz often used in other states, said Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden.
“We told the national groups not to do TV ads, that it would backfire,” he said.
Those national groups might be back to help with the cause if Vermont is sued regarding the labeling law.
Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, said in a statement after the House voted last week to send the bill to the governor, “If Vermont is sued, we intend to use all the resources at our disposal to support Vermont in its groundbreaking effort.”
Meanwhile, another member of the coalition, VPIRG, launched the organization’s biggest summer campaign ever last year, sending teams of young activists to knock on doors in every Vermont town and to sign people up as supporters of GMO labeling, Executive Director Paul Burns said. He estimated VPIRG spent $500,000 this year and last year on GMO-labeling efforts.
VPIRG’s summer campaign came right after the 2013 legislative session, when the House passed a GMO labeling bill in the final hours, leaving the measure pending for the Senate when lawmakers returned in January. Burns knew his crew could focus efforts on winning over just 30 senators, zeroing in particularly on key players such as Starr and Sears, chairmen of two committees that would consider the measure.
“The opportunity for impact was particularly great,” Burns said. With experience lobbying in the Statehouse on other matters over the years, Burns’ organization also knew the personalities of senators. In trying to reach Sears, Burns said, “We knew he responded to a high level of contact. We tried to get him personal letters, phone calls.”
The door-knockers collected 30,000 signatures from those who agreed that people should know what is in their food, Burns said. Those names went into a database of supporters who could be called on later. VPIRG carefully sorted postcards from Vermonters urging support for the bill and sent the cards to the corresponding legislators.
All the cards, phone calls and emails had an impact, because many of the people behind them were constituents whom legislators knew and who were genuinely enthusiastic for GMO labeling. Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, said, “A bunch of people I know signed onto it. It is important to real constituents.”
By March of this year, two separate polls indicated that Vermonters are keen on GMO labeling. A Castleton Polling Institute poll conducted for VTDigger.org last month showed 79 percent of respondents support a labeling law.
A Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont poll conducted at about the same time showed 90 percent supported the labeling of GMO foods, and 80 percent supported a law requiring labeling, said center Director Dr. Jane Kolodinsky. She said she was confident the poll asked the questions as neutrally as possible, though she acknowledged the term “genetically modified” has a negative sound to it.
In the labeling bill that’s headed to the governor’s desk, legislators cited the conflicting studies as a reason to offer consumer labels.
“There is a lack of consensus regarding the validity of the research and science surrounding the safety of genetically engineered foods, as indicated by the fact that there are peer-reviewed studies published in international scientific literature showing negative, neutral, and positive health results,” the bill states.
Lawmakers were provided information about some of that conflicting research by a team from Vermont Law School’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, which worked pro bono for VPIRG. Legal advice from the center and others helped bolster legislators’ confidence that a lawsuit might be winnable, said Sears, the Judiciary Committee chairman.
“We shared our conclusion that we think this bill is constitutional,” said Laura Murphy, the clinic’s associate director and an assistant professor at the law school. Law students working under her guidance pointed to court decisions where labeling laws, such as New York City’s calorie label requirement, were upheld.
That allowed Sears and others to have greater faith that perhaps Vermont’s GMO-labeling bill would have a better fate than the state’s law that required milk containing bovine growth hormones to be labeled. That law was ruled unconstitutional in 1996.
Sears said he went into the debate supportive of labeling but wanting protection from a lawsuit. “Getting over that hurdle was difficult for me,” Sears said.
Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, said when supporters met with Sears in December, he wanted a labeling bill to include a trigger, by which the law would take effect only if other states passed similar laws. Connecticut and Maine have laws with such triggers, and it was something Vermont advocates opposed as close to meaningless.
“He was absolutely adamant about a multi-state trigger,” Stander said of Sears. “He’s an example of a person who has moved on this. He began to understand that the grounds of the bill are strong.”
The Vermont Right to Know coalition also hired Emord and Associates, a Washington law firm, to evaluate the bill, giving legislators another measure of confidence that it might survive legal challenge. “It had an impact,” Allen said.
Opponents of labeling, meanwhile, were uncharacteristically quiet throughout the legislative debate. Food manufacturers and the biotechnology industry testified against the bill but never mounted the same kind of sizable lobbying and advertising effort they did to kill a similar effort in New Hampshire, or to defeat public votes in California and Washington.
“We weren’t able to get traction,” said Karen Batra, communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which instead supports pending federal legislation that would require labeling of GMO foods nationally if the FDA determines there is a health or safety risk. “We had the numbers against us in the Legislature. It was a priority with Democrats.”
The mild tone of the opposition surprised proponents of the bill. “One theory out there is they want to fight it in court. It’s been a mystery. I’m sure there’s a strategy to it,” said Shollenberger, the Montpelier lobbyist who was hired by the coalition this year to help with the campaign.
Batra said she was unable to comment about whether her organization or its members would sue Vermont regarding the law. Laggis, the organization’s Vermont lobbyist, said she expects any lawsuit would come from the food producers rather than from the biotechnology industry.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association responded to a request for comment with a statement, which said in part, “As we continue to evaluate the impacts of HB 112, we will make a determination about whether litigation is the appropriate response to this misguided legislation.”
The association argued that genetically modified crops use less water and fewer pesticides and reduce crop prices by 15-30 percent. “Consumers who prefer to avoid GM ingredients have the option to choose from an array of products already in the marketplace labeled ‘certified organic.’ The government therefore has no compelling interest in warning consumers about foods containing GM ingredients, making HB 112′s legality suspect at best,” the grocers group said in the statement
The legislation has critics in Vermont’s food network, too. Kim Crosby, owner of Vermont Roots, a specialty food producer based in Rutland, said of the labeling bill, “I’m very sad it passed. I really feel they did not do the research.”
Crosby said she believes activists too easily influenced people into thinking that labeling is needed. “I’m still flabbergasted. I can’t believe they got that influence,” she said.
Crosby said the law will create uncertainty for her and for other food producers as they wait to see what the Attorney General’s Office decides on the details of what has to be labeled and how they have to go about proving whether a product is GMO-free. She’s wondering whether she has to prove that products that contain no soy, corn, canola or rape seed — the ingredients commonly containing GMOs — are GMO-free.
“There’s just so many questions surrounding this,” Crosby said. “This could affect a lot of products.”
Contact Terri Hallenbeck at 999-9994 or email@example.com.
GMO labeling details
Gov. Peter Shumlin is expected to sign a bill as early as this week that could make the state the first to require food manufacturers to label products that contain genetically modified organisms. Here’s a look at some of the details:
• What are GMOs: Genetically modified organisms are plants and animals whose cells have been inserted with a gene from an unrelated species in order to take on specific characteristics, such as resistance to insects or an increase in specific nutrients. Food from genetically engineered plants has been in the food supply since the 1990s.
• Foods commonly containing GMOs: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 94 percent of cotton, 93 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of corn planted in the U.S. are genetically modified. Those are commonly found in foods such as soups, sauces, mayonnaise, salad dressings, cereals, breads and snack foods. Certified organic products are not allowed to contain GMOs.
• When labeling would start in Vermont: July 1, 2016, after the Attorney General’s Office finalizes specifics.
• How labels would be worded: The bill offers three wording options subject to modifcations by the Attorney General’s Office: “partially produced with genetic engineering,” “may be produced with genetic engineering,” or “produced with genetic engineering.” Supporters say Vermont’s label would be unlike those in the European Union, which are included in the list of ingredients, because in the U.S. the nutrition label is under federal guidelines.
• Exemptions: Food served in restaurants, liquor, meat and dairy products would be exempt from labeling. Meat is regulated by the federal government. Authors of the bill argue that dairy products made from animals that eat genetically modified food are not themselves genetically modified. Liquor is not considered food. Restaurants are exempt because authors of the bill said they were focusing on foods where consumers routinely see labels.
• Use of the word “natural:” No foods sold in Vermont after July 2016 that contain GMOs may be labeled natural.
• Possibility of a lawsuit: Attorney General Bill Sorrell has said Vermont is likely to be sued by food manufacturers if the state becomes the first to require labeling. If the state loses, he estimated the cost at $5 million to $8 million. The bill establishes a fund to which people may voluntarily contribute and which will receive money the state receives from other legal settlements that are not otherwise directed in the state budget, but would otherwise be funded by the state budget.
• Elsewhere: 64 countries, including the European Union, Australia, Japan and China, require labeling of GMO foods. No other U.S. states do. Connecticut passed a law in 2013 that would require labeling if at least four neighboring states with a combined population of 20 million pass similar laws. Maine passed a labeling law this year that would require labeling once five neighboring states, including New Hampshire, pass similar laws.