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.

Carl Etnier

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