Health Care

Bill requiring labeling of genetically engineered food saved from procedural death

Milking time at Island Acres Farm in South Hero. VTD/Josh Larkin
VTD/Josh Larkin

A bill that would require labeling of genetically engineered food was given further life in the Legislature even though the House Agriculture Committee missed Friday’s “crossover day” deadline. Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell OK’d the bill for consideration later in the session, and the House panel plans to continue work on the bill next week.

The bill (H. 722) amends the definition of “misbranded” food in Vermont law to include food that is produced with genetic engineering but not labeled as such.

Some food is excepted, such as meat, milk and eggs from animals fed genetically engineered feed or treated with genetically engineered drugs, such as bovine growth hormone. If the animal itself has been created through genetic engineering, however, its meat or other products would be required to be labeled as genetically engineered.

The bill defines genetic engineering to include a number of breeding techniques that breach barriers between species, and it applies to both raw agricultural commodities, like vegetables, and processed foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients. It would also prohibit any labeling of genetically engineered food as “natural.”

The agricultural use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has ballooned in the U.S. since it began in the early 1990s. According to testimony before the committee, more than 80 percent of the corn, soybeans and canola grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered, and more than 70 percent of all processed foods contain some GMO ingredients.

Witnesses, even those opposed to labeling food as genetically engineered, told the committee last week that 80 percent to 90 percent of consumers want to know whether the food they buy contains GMOs.

Some, like Margaret Laggis, lobbyist for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and Tim Buskey, with the Vermont Farm Bureau, dismissed consumers’ concerns as stemming from ignorance.

“Consumers know nothing about agriculture,” Laggis told the committee. She formerly lived on a Hardwick dairy farm, and she called visitors “retarded” who would come by and ask questions like, “What’s the ratio of boys to girls that you milk here?”

Michael Hansen of Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumers Reports, told the committee a different story. He said the FDA doesn’t require safety testing and too few safety studies have been done. “There are studies in the literature that suggest all sorts of adverse outcomes. Those studies should be followed up on. … The way I would look on it is to say that the safety (sic) isn’t there to show that the crops on the market are safe.”

Proponents of labeling also cite GMOs’ environmental effects. Gary Hirshberg, chairman of organic yogurt producer Stonyfield Farms, said that crops with a gene for resistance to a widely used herbicide, glyphosate (sold under the trade name Roundup), have resulted in herbicide-resistant “superweeds” on over 13 million acres of farmland in 26 states. This leads, he said, to greater use of stronger defoliants like 2,4-D.

Hirshberg promoted labeling so consumers can to choose not to support practices that lead to these environmental effects. “This gives a voice to the consumer-driven food economy that wants the transparency that only labeling can bring,” he said.

Committee member and organic farmer Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, was interested in the marketing opportunity for farmers. Stevens’ questions led witnesses opposed to the bill to acknowledge that labeling could, indeed, change the market.

It might not change the market in a way that benefits small producers and manufacturers who now avoid GMOs, according to Laggis. Before Vermont’s rBST-labeling law, she said, Booth Brothers was the only milk labeled rBST-free.

“What ended up happening is, now almost all milk is labeled as BST-free, and that probably would not have happened if Vermont had not focused so much consumer attention on it,” Laggis said. “Booth Brothers might have actually captured a larger, more significant share.”

According to Hansen at Consumers Union, more than 50 countries containing a third of the world’s population require some sort of labeling of food containing GMOs. Hirshberg said that countries requiring labeling include all of the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea and Russia.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require labeling and, Agriculture Committee Chair Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, said, no state does, either. Hirshberg said that 21 states are working on similar bills.

The committee is clearly hesitant to make Vermont the first state in the nation to pass a law opposed by biotechnology giants like Monsanto, a company with a track record of aggressive litigation to protect their products. The committee asked Ryan Kriger of the state Attorney General’s Office about various grounds for challenging the bill’s constitutionality.

They also asked him about the cost to the state of defending a 1994 law requiring milk containing genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBST) to be labeled, a law that was ultimately struck down by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. (Kriger said that the cost was impossible to calculate for a case that long ago.)

Others warned the committee to steer clear of repeating the state’s experience with the 1994 law.

Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Grocers’ Association, said, “The labeling bill before you is, from my perspective, all too reminiscent of the rBST law,” which he said led to a “year from hell” for him and his members as they tried to comply with it.

A number of the witnesses against the bill said they would be less opposed to a labeling requirement developed at the federal level, that would be uniform in all states. Stonyfield Farm’s Hirshberg said he spent Thursday at the White House as part of an effort to persuade the FDA to require labeling of genetically engineered food. He said he also supported the state-level efforts.

Laggis said a Vermont-only labeling requirement could harm small Vermont producers. She pointed to Bove’s, a producer of tomato sauce that sells in both Vermont and New York state. She said that since producing two labels is expensive, Bove’s would use its Vermont label in New York state, too. But New York-based tomato sauce producers that don’t sell in Vermont would not be required to label their produce as genetically engineered, and Bove’s would lose sales.

The witnesses who opposed the bill all said they did not object to voluntary labeling of food that does not contain GMOs. While FDA guidelines discourage the use of “GMO-free,” they allow statements like, “Our tomato growers do not plant seeds developed using biotechnology.”

Partridge, the committee chair, said that the committee will use its reprieve from the crossover deadline to hear next week from the lawmakers’ attorneys, Legislative Council, about what legal options they have and what the effects might be of various provisions. In addition to passing the bill as written, lawmakers have discussed making the bill take effect when a certain number of other states pass similar bills or amending the bill to encourage voluntary labeling of food that is not genetically engineered.

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Carl Etnier

About Carl

Carl Etnier hosts the talk radio shows Equal Time Radio on WDEV, Waterbury and Relocalizing Vermont on WGDR, Plainfield and WGDH, Hardwick. He writes a column on Transition Towns in Vermont Commons and blogs at the newspaper’s web site. Carl began regular newspaper writing and reporting with a column in the Sunday Times Argus and Rutland Herald in 2008. His media work started when he left a consulting career to raise awareness about the choices Vermont faces as world oil production reaches its limits.

Carl also works as a part of the Transition Town movement and serves on local food and energy-related committees, as well as the East Montpelier Select Board.

Carl considers himself a professional generalist, having continually worked both sides of the line between science and technology on one hand and social policy and sustainability on the other. That’s led to a B.Sc. in botany and crop ecology, an M.A. in liberal education, and Ph.D. studies in decision-making process that consider sustainability aspects of wastewater treatment. He’s worked in academia, at non-profits, for municipal government, and in the private sector as a water and wastewater consultant. He is sometimes mistaken for an engineer, but really he has just hung out with engineers a lot.

After growing up in Wisconsin, Carl lived in six states and three countries (Japan, Sweden, and Norway) before settling in Vermont starting in 1998. He speaks Swedish and Norwegian, plus broken Spanish.

Carl lives in East Montpelier with Céilí the fast-running dog, Mizu the water-loving cat, and five hens a-laying. He’s happy to live in easy bicycling distance of events in Montpelier, from which the 700-foot climb home gives plenty of time to mull over what just happened.

Email: [email protected]

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  • David Zuckerman

    I would like to commend the legislature for persuing this bill. But I also want to clarify for consumers (because that is what this bill is for) that “pastured” pork and chicken and eggs, are all produced from animals whose diet is 80-90% grain.

    So unless those animals are eating GMO-free grain or organic grain, one is still consuming food that is produced primarily with GMO.

    Obviously this is a consumers choice and there are many criteria by which people by their food. Outdoors, no anti-biotics, to name a few. But one that I find is regularly confusing to customers is that they think they are buying an animal product that has no relation to GMO’s when in reality, the pigs and chickens that are “pastured” or “free range” are still part of the GMO food chain, and are not simply eating grass and bugs in the manner that “100% grass fed” cows, or sheep are.

    Again, kudo’s to the House Ag. committee for taking this up. I hope they do move the bill and that it can get through the Senate as well.

  • Rob Smart

    I was very glad to see this important legislation continue moving forward, especially after reading comments from Margaret Laggis, a lobbyist for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

    In classic industry style, she talks out of both sides of her mouth, arguing two sides of the same issue to fit her client’s best interests.

    For example, she describes how the rBST-free labeling requirement likely hurt Booth Brothers by eliminating its differentiation, since all producers were required to label their products accordingly. Never mind that consumers benefited considerably.

    Later, she talks about how Bove’s, a Vermont company, would be required to have two labels, one for products sold in Vermont identifying its product as GMO-free, and a different label for New York, where such a requirement was not required. She also stressed how expensive this would be, which is arguably not true, so Bove’s would be forced to use the GMO-free label in New York.

    Didn’t she earlier defend the value of Booth Brothers differentiation before other producers were required to label milk as rBST-free? Wouldn’t that mean that Bove’s would have a competitive advantage in New York, especially since 80-90 percent of consumers want such labeling?

    The fact is that consumers will buy GMO-free products at the expense of GMO products that utterly dominate today’s market. This is bad for biotech. It is bad for industrial farming. It is bad for concentrated corporate power.

    All the more reason for the State of Vermont to show its leadership in giving its citizens real choice, potentially at the expense of corporate interests.

    • Reg Godin

      I believe the difference in her argument is that Bove’s product is NOT GMO-free and would have to be labeled as such therefore being labeled as containing GMOs in a jurisdiction that doesn’t require this on products produced or sold in their state.

      Either way, all food laws in general need to be modified to clarify differences between small producers who create superior products to their industrial counterparts. The laws should also be modified to help these producers get their products to the marketplace. The current food system is outdated and overall it does not encourage the production of quality products.

      • I see it as an incentive for Boves to become GMO free. I love to support local and GMO free foods. I’ll choose GMO free over local and local GMO free over anything else.So it is win win for Boves to become GMO free,

  • Maria COncilio

    WE want labels! Genetically engineered, manufactured “food” is NOT the same as traditionally grown food grown by farmers. ALthough farmers plant these “seeds” what grows from them is a very different product than what grows from a saved or traditional seed. What grows from genetically engineered farming should be labeled because we should be allowed to make the choice when buying our food, whether we want to partake of genetic engineering at our dinner tables, not force fed by the corporate biotech industry. Dear Farmers, we don’t want to eat genetically engineered product, so do not buy into the lies planted by the biotech crowd, who want only to line their pockets with $.

  • Wendy Ireland

    Will the law require labeling of foods containing GMOs or those which are GMO-free? One group is huge, due to the fact that almost anything you buy in a grocery store contains corn syrup, which is made from that more than 80% of corn grown in this country which contains GMOs. The other group is small and includes all certified organic foods as well as what most of us grow at home. You can guess which group has huge corporate support.

  • Timmy Sheble-Hall

    Despite Margaret Laggis’ comments, a lot of us consumers actually do know a good amount about agriculture. Which is precisely why we want labeling!

  • James Maroney

    Legislators might be interested to note, if it is not entirely obvious, that the opponents to this bill are large multi-national processors, multi-national seed and herbicide manufacturers and national chain retailers, in other words, those who profit by encouraging farmers to over produce so that commodity prices will remain low.

    Vermont has tried for five decades to “help” its dairy farmers and in so doing, it has consistently chosen to help them by relieving them of property (Current Use) or sales taxes or sharing with them the costs of manure digesters, fencing or drainage ditching, or by relieving them of the considerable costs of cleaning up the pollution conventional farming inevitably causes. The Land Trust and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board also “help” farmers by buying conservation easements in an effort to keep the land in farming. These programs all have widespread public support.

    But conventional farmers invariably convert these subsidies, whether taken in cash or in kind, to new capacity (new larger barns, new equipment, new land, more cows) with which to boost production. But greater capacity generates over production and over production is the Vermont dairy farmers’ worst enemy. The federal milk markets are awash in 12B lbs over supply that can’t be sold except for Class II, III and IV prices, all set below the farmers’ cost of production. This is a classic, negative feedback loop: greater production drives milk prices lower, which drives more consolidation, more debt, more expansion, more farm attrition, deeper rural economic decay and on-going lake pollution. These are the precepts of the conventional dairy farming business model, not its coincidental tolerable effects, and the model cannot be applied without inviting these results.

    Vermont cannot “help” farmers (or Lake Champlain) by listening to those who want to keep production high and prices low, which “helps” only those who exploit farmers. A vote against this bill assures that Vermont will continue along the path it has been on since the introduction of conventional farming after WWII. To help its farmers, Vermont must break this negative feedback loop and this bill is an important first step.

  • Bonnie MacBrien

    Way to go – labeling those who oppose your viewpoint as ignorant and “retards”! I have both a bachelors and masters degree in science but I guess that doesn’t count for anything because I believe this type of labeling is more than reasonable. If people who utilize GMO’s in making their products believe it is so safe and wonderful, why wouldn’t they be proud to label them?

  • Alex Barnham

    “Consumers know nothing about agriculture,” Laggis told the committee. She formerly lived on a Hardwick dairy farm, and she called visitors “retarded” who would come by and ask questions like, “What’s the ratio of boys to girls that you milk here?”

    Then I guess all children who enter 1st grade are “retarded”.
    More bull from the lobbyists.

  • Hod Palmer

    While I support labeling, this is all one more reason why you should shun the grocery store with its predominence of processed foods. There are plenty of local farmers and farmers’ markets where you can purchase real food grown on Vermont ground with organic feeds. No label required. Yum!

  • Jerry Kilcourse

    The “retarded” comment by Laggis seems typical of the arrogance in the corporate bio-tech culture. Maybe her statement should be required as part of the labeling law as a way to educate us ignorant consumers.

  • Steven Farnham

    I’m trying to imagine how well it would fly if someone speaking on an issue in town meeting labelled her opponents as “retards,” as in “You retards don’t know anything about town budgets!” Or… “No one would fund this project except an abject retard!”

    One can only speculate on what makes someone think that such words are appropriate in the statehouse, where they address the Senators and Representatives that we the “retards” elect. Nevertheless, I tend to enjoy it when they use such language.

    It shows us who they really are, and it shows how slothful the rest of us are to tolerate such behaviour in the people’s House.

  • Kelly Ouellette

    Rather than call people “retarted” maybe she should take that oportunity to educate others about farm life. Kids these days don’t have access to farms like their great grand parents did, they don’t know- educate them then they will know that big business farming is bad! All food that is made of GMO’s should be labled. We don’t know if it’s healthy or not and I would prefer not to jeopardize my health because I was denied knowing!

  • Scott Olsen

    This should be a vote, on a ballot, by the PEOPLE!!!{as all things should be in a democracy}. The fact that the peoples legislators can “drag their feet” is one of the problems that need to be addressed as well. They need to answer for that both locally and nationally. Time to identify the feet draggers, call them all out publicly and loudly, and send them ALL packing!!!! You Vermonters rock!!! You still allow true glimpses of America to be seen {that whole “by the people for the people” stuff}, and that makes me proud. Now if we could just get them to follow your example in Maine {and everywhere else}… but that is another fight. Keep on pushing!!!

  • sara ross

    These biotec bullies are nothing short of merchants of slow death in thier incessant meddling with our food sources in thier desire to ultimately control the global food supply. Thier behavior is just plain evil.

  • Marie Boyce

    Vermont Legislature,

    Please do not get down on your knees to Monsanto like so many others have. Have courage in knowing you are doing the right thing for the citizens of Vermont and, by doing so, will hopefully give other states courage to do the same!

  • Joe Chalue

    If I understand this right the “The Food and Drug Administration(FDA or USFDA)is an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, one of the United States federal executive departments. The FDA is responsible for protecting and promoting public health through the regulation and supervision of food safety among other things, but yet there own guidelines discourage the use of “GMO-free,” when there are scientific study after study show how harmful GMO’s are? Well I guess the US government is afraid to Pi$$ off the big multinational companies I think us Vermonters should lead the way. We got labels stating what milk is rBST free. Now we need to add GMO-free labeling and requiring it on all food sold in Vermont not just grown or processed here. Like Hirshberg said there are 21 other states working on similar bills. Lets lead the way on this one Vermont just like we did with the rBST! We human beings have the right to know what our food is made of or what is in it! I know I have contacted my rep and made my feelings known if only there was more coverage on this like there was back in 93 to 94.



  • It is not enough to simply claim that ‘the public has a right to know.’ There is a problem of fundamental scientific ignorance on the part of the consumers who would read these labels. Think for example what would happen if we put the following true label products: “This product was produced using radiation produced by nuclear reactions.” The fact that this radiation is in fact sunlight produced by nuclear fusion on the sun would be lost on enough people that the labelled products would fail commercially. So this can’t come down to a ‘right to know’ debate. It is a scientific question about whether there is evidence that the products are safe or harmful. The problem is that most GMO do not have any known harmful effects and it is impossible to ever show that something is complete safe. The FDA should require stringent testing of GMO products and label only those found to be harmful.