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VPIRG delivers 30,000 signatures in support of GMO labeling law

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks as a group of VPIRG canvassers gathers behind him Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013, at the Statehouse in Montpelier. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks as a group of VPIRG canvassers and others gather behind him Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013, at the Statehouse in Montpelier. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group’s summer campaign in support of GMO labeling might be the largest canvassing effort the state has ever seen.

In front of boxes filled with 30,000 postcards to state senators signed by residents from every region in Vermont, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., congratulated VPIRG on its most successful summer canvass.

More than 60 representatives from VPIRG and several government officials were at the event Thursday on the steps of the Statehouse. Since the beginning of May, canvassers have spoken to more than 50,000 Vermonters and collected approximately 30,000 signatures in support of genetically modified organisms (GMO) labeling.

“Grass-roots democracy – that’s what you guys have done and thank you very, very much for that,” Sanders said.

A GMO labeling bill was passed by the Vermont House in the last days of the 2013 session, but still requires a Senate vote next year. The bill calls for food that is entirely or partially produced by genetic engineering to be labeled.

On the federal level

In Washington, Sanders said he has been fighting for a federal ruling on GMO labeling and in May, the U.S. Senate rejected an amendment that would have created a similar nationwide requirement.

“We can bring it up again,” Sanders said. “I can tell you what the chances are going to be – they’re going to be excellent, cause if no one else brings it up, I will.”

At the moment he is searching for the overall context of another bill to attach a GMO labeling amendment. In May, it was brought up as part of the farm bill, he said.

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With 27 votes, the bill had modest support, Sanders said, and he believes that grass-roots activism is key to move forward on this issue. Apart from Vermont, activism is taking place in California, Connecticut, Maine and the state of Washington, he said.

“The opposition comes from groups like Monsanto and Monsanto is a very, very powerful corporation,” Sanders said. “They have a lot of money, they are very litigious and they go to court very often. They’re punitive and they threaten people – so we need strong grass-roots activism to take them on.”

The risk of a lawsuit from food companies has been a worry for lawmakers and has sparked opposition to the bill.

As Sanders expressed concern over the power that food companies such as Monsanto has, he pointed to the importance of Vermont leading the way on this issue. By making it clear that states such as Vermont have the power to legislate labeling of GMO, it will be clear that the federal government also has the ability, he said.

Sanders, who is back in Vermont while Congress is on recess, made a short speech and stayed for a longer discussion with canvassers on the lawn outside the Statehouse.

He was not only interested in the GMO labeling. “What other issues are on your minds?” he asked the group of young activists. He got responses on issues such as global warming and why the political engine in the U.S. is so dependent on fundraising.

The campaign

VPIRG’s GMO labeling campaign runs through August and Leah Marsters, who had been one of the canvass directors of the campaign, said that the interest has been overwhelming.

“We have never done this before, and quite possibly it has never been done in Vermont before,” she said.

She and her 60 staffers put in more than 40,000 working hours, visiting 255 communities in the state.

“Last spring, our representatives said that they had never heard from more constituencies on one single issue than they did with GMO labeling,” Marsters said.

“And let me tell you our senators have a lot more coming their way.”

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