The Vermont House voted 107-37 on Thursday to advance a bill that would require the labeling of foods derived from genetically modified organisms.
The vote marks the furthest any such legislation has moved in the United States, and it pushes the bill to a third and final reading in the House on Friday. House bill H.112 was ushered onto the floor with the support of the House Agriculture and Judiciary committees. If it passes a third reading in the House, it would land on senators’ desks next year for the second half of the legislative biennium.
The one big exemption in the bill is for food derived or consisting of an animal that has not been produced by genetic engineering itself. This provision mirrors legislation in Europe.
No representatives on Thursday argued against the concept of more transparent food labeling. The most frequent point of opposition voiced on the floor concerned a likely lawsuit from the biotech or food industries that the Attorney General’s Office estimates could cost the state more than $5 million.
Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre, reasserted that he thinks the state would lose a lawsuit on constitutional grounds. He said the law runs afoul of the First Amendment by compelling speech, and it could pre-empt federal authority under the constitution’s supremacy clause by enacting a law that the Federal Drug Administration has not.
“Nobody else has passed a similar bill. They all seem to be waiting for Vermont to go first and lead the nation,” he said. “What they mean is they don’t want to risk their taxpayers’ money; they want us to risk Vermonters’ money. That is a $5 million to $10 million risk, and one I am not willing to take.”
Koch pointed to federal lawsuits the state has lost by enacting a labeling law for products containing the rBST growth hormone in dairy products and campaign finance laws.
Rep. John Mitchell, R-Fairfax, made a similar plea to his fellow legislators.
“For once, let others lead and we can follow,” he said.
But Democrats, who hold a supermajority in the House, heeded no such requests.
Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, chairs the House Judiciary Committee. The openly gay representative spearheaded same-sex civil unions in Vermont a decade prior. He didn’t back down from threats in 2000, and he said he wouldn’t back down from food industry giants now.
“When we passed civil unions, we were told that Vermont would be boycotted and that our tourism industry would die. When we passed mercury-labeling requirements, we were told that fluorescent light bulbs would no longer light the rooms of Vermont,” he said. “Now, we are told if we pass GE labeling, we will face losing our boxes of corn flakes and face empty grocery store shelves. Vermont should move forward and lead the nation once again. I vote yes, once again, without fear.”
Rep. Teo Zagar, D-Barnard, sits on the House Agriculture Committee and has been a major driver of the legislation.
“I want to believe that genetically engineered foods are perfectly safe and sufficiently tested and regulated for my sake and the sake of everyone else who consumes them … but I don’t,” he said. “I have a right and reason to know what I’m being sold in the free market.”
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, is a third generation farmer in Vermont. He’s concerned that the labeling law would stigmatize technologies that improve yields and reduce herbicide and pesticide use. He said he’s also concerned that regulating and testing such practices would drive up the cost of food.
“Everybody should have the right to know,” Smith said. “We should be taking this labeling issue on the voluntary side, and saying for those producers who want to produce and manufacture a product that’s GMO-free, they have the right to do that. It’s already federal law they can do that.”
Further debate is expected Friday and the bill could receive fewer votes in its favor.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, voted for the bill Thursday, but she is planning to introduce an amendment that would strip the legislation of its labeling language. It would, however, leave language in the bill that prohibits GMO foods from being labeled or advertised as “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” “all natural,” or use any similar descriptions that “have a tendency to mislead a consumer.”
Meanwhile, many people outside Vermont are watching.
Since the House Judiciary Committee approved the bill Tuesday, almost 2 million people have visited the Facebook page for Vermont Right to Know. The GMO-labeling campaign is organized by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, NOFA Vermont and Rural Vermont. It has the support of thousands of Vermonters and almost 200 businesses, including all 17 of the state’s member-owned cooperatives.
While no states have passed such legislation, more than 60 countries around the world have, according to the nonprofit Center for Food Safety.