By Amy Brooks Thornton
Vermont has passed historic GMO (genetically modified organisms) labeling legislation—the nation’s first GMO labeling law to be effective without the requisite that other states pass similar legislation. This “Right to Know” law, passed by 26 to 2 votes, requires food producers to state on food labels or, in the case of unwrapped produce, in bins or on shelving, whether food products contain GMOs or were produced using genetic engineering.
On April 16, the Vermont Senate approved the legislation with amendments to the House of Representatives’ version and will returning it to the House for approval of the proposed changes. If the House concurs, the law heads to Gov. Peter Shumlin, who is likely to sign the bill.
Genetically engineered foods defined and argued
As defined by the World Health Organization, genetically modified foods are “derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.” Although most genetically modified foods are derived from plants, development of foods from genetically engineered microorganisms and animals is likely.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, genetically engineered crops, including corn, cotton and soybeans, are grown on about half of the 169 million acres of US cropland. Topping the list of genetically engineered vegetables are corn, soy, zucchini, alfalfa, canola and, making up half of the U.S. sugar production, sugar beets. Eighty percent of processed foods include genetically modified ingredients.
Genetically modified food opponents argue that genetic engineering of food may interfere with environmental and human natural biological processes, alter or decrease naturally existing nutritional value in food and ultimately be unethical. Advocates contend that genetic engineering of food can increase nutritional value and crop production and create more weather and insect resilient plants.
“Whether the science is good or bad is not the question,” said Sen. Joe Benning, R- Caledonia. “The question is, does the consumer have the right to know?”
Vermonters want the right to know
According to Washington County Republican Sen. Bill Doyle’s Town Meeting Day survey, 76 percent of Vermonters who responded voted that food products sold in Vermont produced with genetic engineering should be labeled. Fifteen percent disapproved, and nine percent were undecided.
Vermont’s “Right to Know” bill, H.112, strives to empower the consumer “to make informed decisions regarding the potential health effects of food they purchase … the environmental impacts of their food,” and “disclose factual information and protect religious practices.”
Should there be a dairy exemption?
Should milk and products made primarily with milk, such as plain yogurt, butter and cheese, be exempt from GMO labeling? If cows are fed corn, and the majority of corn grown in the United States is genetically engineered, there’s a good chance GMOs will be in your morning coffee—if you drink it with half and half.
Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, explains the complexity surrounding labeling dairy and meat. Strict federal labeling laws for dairy and meat already exist, but they do not require label information on genetically engineered feed given to the animals. The state of Vermont may not be able to override federal law due to federal preemption—when the federal government can invalidate a conflicting state law.
Federal law bars GMO labeling of dairy. But, because the Legislature wants to be sure not to appear to be creating legislation favoring Vermont’s dairy industry, the Right to Know legislation includes a study under the Office of the Attorney General. The study, due by Jan. 15, 2015, will recommend whether or not milk and products made primarily with milk should be labeled and the legal basis for the recommendation.
‘No’ to the trigger mechanism
And then there’s the issue of neighborly collaboration. Vermont may be the first state to approve a Right to Know GMO labeling law without a “trigger mechanism,” which would put the law’s implementation on hold until neighboring states follow suit. Maine and Connecticut have already approved GMO labeling legislation, but these include triggers. The rationale of waiting is that if states collectively passed GMO labeling laws, they would be able to pool resources to defend themselves against almost certain lawsuits from food associations, such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
But Sen. Zuckerman believes that a food association could sue one state, compelling that state to defend itself alone without neighborhood collaboration. He doesn’t like the idea of passing a law that can’t be put into effect.
“The idea of passing with a trigger was, at best, passing the buck; at worst, duping our voters,” Zuckerman said. It’s “giving people a pipe dream. We either believe we have the evidence or we don’t. Let’s do it.”
Vermont may decide to move forward alone. Supporting the House decision not to wait for other states, the Senate approved a new date of July 1, 2016, for the law to become effective whether or not other states join in.
Funding our legal defense
To help alleviate the cost of legal defense against potential litigation from food associations, and hopefully reduce the burden to Vermont taxpayers, the Senate created a legal fund with a goal of $1.5 million. The attorney general can also use the fund to implement the legislation.
Monies for the fund can come from three places: gifts from individuals and public and private organizations, which is standard operating procedure for such special funds; excess monies from pending suits in the attorney general’s office; and, possibly, the 2016 state budget. If the fund does not reach $1.5 million by end of Fiscal Year 2015, the attorney general will make a budget request for funds to cover the gap.
However, Zuckerman doesn’t think the state will have to kick in. “I am extremely confident we will have $1.5 million in the fund,” he said. “There are people and organizations all across this country who would … be willing to help.”
Industry and consumer cost
Legal issues aside, will the industry pass the cost of labeling onto the consumer, increasing food prices? The Washington State Academy of Sciences, in its report Labeling of Foods Containing Genetically Modified Ingredients, found that the direct costs of mandatory labeling were notable.