Vermont will likely be the first state in the nation to require food manufacturers to label products containing genetically modified organisms.
Gov. Peter Shumlin said Wednesday he will sign Vermont’s GMO labeling bill into law. His announcement came just minutes after the House gave H.112 final legislative approval by a 114-30 vote.
“I am proud of Vermont for being the first state in the nation to ensure that Vermonters will know what is in their food,” Shumlin said in a statement. “Vermont has led the local food movement that is better connecting people nationwide with the food they eat.”
The bill would take effect July 1, 2016. Other states have labeling laws that go into effect when neighboring states pass similar policies.
Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, has been pushing for GMO labeling for much of his career in the state Legislature. Zuckerman was first elected to the House in 1996.
“Vermont has now put a stake in the sand around food transparency, and it may well help create that across the country, much as we did with marriage equality and other historic measures,” Zuckerman said.
There will be challenges ahead, he said.
“There is no doubt that there is a risk of a legal challenge by the food manufacturers. And my hope that they would rather comply with people’s wishes rather than hide behind legal arguments to keep their food opaque,” Zuckerman said. “To me food transparency is as important as government transparency.”
House Speaker Shap Smith said in a statement: “Every Vermonter has a right to know what is in their food. Genetically engineered foods potentially pose risks to human health and the environment. I am proud to be the first state in the nation to recognize that people deserve to know whether the food they consume is genetically modified or engineered.”
The potential for litigation was among the top concern lawmakers opposing the bill raised on Wednesday. Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who anticipates a lawsuit, estimated the cost of litigation at $1 million if the state were to win. A loss would cost $5 million or more.
That’s why the bill sets up a $1.5 million special fund reserved for defending the state in court. This money would be raised from state appropriations, private donations and settlement proceeds.
Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre Town, who voted against the bill, said Vermont should not pass a law it anticipates defending in court.
“What I do not support is Vermont sticking its neck out, again, all alone,” Koch said. “Frankly, I find it embarrassing and a bad precedent to have our great state pass the hat to support the laws we enact.”
The Vermont Attorney General has defended two high profile laws passed by the Legislature that have been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, including a law restricting campaign contributions and another statute that restricted the resale of doctors’ prescription records. Both state statutes, the court ruled, violated the First Amendment.
The majority of commodity crops sold in the U.S. are genetically engineered. Corn, soybeans and cotton used in many packaged snack foods, sweeteners and cereals contain genetically modified organisms.
The biotechnology industry, which manufactures genetically engineered food products, opposes Vermont’s legislation.
“Any law requiring the labeling of foods that contain GMO ingredients creates extra costs for farmers, food manufacturers, distributors, grocers, and consumers,” said Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for Biotechnology Industry Organization, the world’s largest industry trade group.
“The bill in Vermont is especially problematic because it puts these additional burdens solely on Vermont’s citizens,” she said.
But Daniel Barlow, a lobbyist for the trade group Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, said the bill will give Vermont businesses and retailers a competitive advantage in the region.
“Once Vermont’s known as a state where our food is labeled, people from New Hampshire, people from New York and people from Massachusetts will come here to shop for their groceries,” Barlow said. “Because they know that when they go in the grocery store they are going to have more information here than they will back home.”
Scientists disagree on whether consuming genetically engineered food products is harmful to human health, but proponents of the initiative say it’s about consumer information. Environmentalists point out that genetically engineered crops allow for heavy application of weed killers, and U.S. farmers this year are using more herbicides to kill off herbicide-resistant “superweeds.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is pushing for federal labeling reform, congratulated the Vermont Legislature on Wednesday.
“I am very proud our small state stood up to Monsanto and other multi-national food conglomerates and is taking the lead in a movement to allow the people of our country to know what is in the food that they eat,” Sanders said in a statement.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 25 states have introduced GMO labeling bills this year.
“I do think that this is a model that other states can look to in passing other legislation,” said Falko Schilling, a lobbyist for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “This is really a start to a much larger movement across the country.”
Animal products would not be covered by the legislation. But the Vermont Attorney General’s Office will report back to lawmakers next session on whether to require dairy products to be labeled.
A VTDigger/Castleton Polling Institute poll shows that 79 percent of Vermonters support GMO labeling.