GMO labeling bill gets once over in the Vermont Senate

The Senate Agriculture Committee is wasting no time taking up a bill to require the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients.

H.112, which was passed by the Vermont House last May, is designed to protect food safety and public health “by enabling consumers to avoid the potential risks associated with genetically engineered food.”

The legislation would require all foods that include genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such.

The technology at the heart of the bill is the widespread use of genetic engineering in many agricultural crops. Thanks to advances in technology, scientists can extract and artificially insert new genetic material into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal, introducing new properties such as pest resistance, increased nutritional value, herbicide resistance or increased productivity.

Since the first genetically modified (GM) seeds were approved for commercial use in 1994, American farmers have adopted this technological advance on a wide scale and are using a broad variety of GM crops. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that in 2012, about 88 percent of the corn planted in the U.S. was a GM variety, along with 93 percent of the nation’s soybean crop.

The Senate panel has been taking testimony on the bill most mornings since the legislative session began, hearing from dairy farmers, feed dealers, doctors, lawyers and federal and state officials, among others.

The bill cites public uncertainty about the impact of GMOs on human health and the environment and a lack of consensus about “the validity of the research or science surrounding genetically engineered foods.”

Advocates of the bill say that both nationally and within the state, people want to know whether the food they eat contains genetically modified ingredients.

“Labeling will give consumers greater ability to make informed food choices,” wrote Falko Schilling, consumer protection advocate with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG).

VPIRG is one of four organizations behind the Vermont Right to Know GMOs campaign, along with Rural Vermont, NOFA-VT, and Cedar Circle Farm. The coalition held a rally on the Statehouse steps on Thursday, followed by an educational event and a meeting with legislators. Some 50 people turned out at the rally, bearing signs reading “Just say no GMOs,” and “Vermonters want to know — label GMO.”

Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, told the crowd to spread the word about the campaign, which she said should have widespread appeal. “If you eat, you’ve got to care about this,” she said.

In an interview, Stander said her organization has many concerns about the safety — environmental, human and otherwise — of GMO foods. But she said H.112 isn’t a referendum on whether or not GMOs are good or bad.

“This bill is simpler,” she said. “It’s a consumer bill. People need to know whether it’s present in the foods they’re eating.” Stander said the Vermont campaign has gotten a shot in the arm with the passage of GMO labeling bills in Connecticut and Maine.

Opposition to H.112

The bill has raised concerns in some corners of the agriculture industry in Vermont. Margaret Laggis testified last week on behalf of United Dairy Farmers of Vermont, a coalition of dairy farmers who use technology in their farm operations. Laggis is also registered as a lobbyist for the Council for Biotechnology Information. The bill as written exempts dairy, meat and alcohol, since these products fall under federal regulations that would make labeling them on a statewide basis difficult to enforce. But Laggis said that doesn’t mean dairy farmers can ignore the bill.

“I think this already does affect them,” she said on Tuesday. If a labeling bill is passed, she said, she expects that it will create pressure to remove GM crops from production practices. To her, that poses a problem. “These crops offer farmers almost the only opportunity to actually meet their nutrient management plan,” said Laggis.

Laggis said in order to keep topsoil fertile and productive, farmers growing corn and soybeans face a choice of either rotating large areas of land out of production each year or pursuing no-till or low-till methods, which can create weed problems. Certain GM seeds target weeds and pests, which seed producers say can help to minimize the use of pesticides and herbicides.

Laggis suggested that Vermont create an optional GMO-free label — along the lines of the Non-GMO Project label that some brands currently use — that producers could choose to put on their products, rather than requiring producers, processors or store owners to label foods that contain GMOs.

Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Grocers Association, also supports an alternative solution to GMO labeling. He did not take a position on whether or not GMO crops should be labeled, but said that a state-specific labeling requirement would create difficulties for food producers both within and outside of the state, as well as grocers and other store owners.

“We’re not against labeling. We have a lot of concern over trying to do it on a state-by-state basis,” he said. Particularly for small food producers in Vermont, Harrison said, a label stating that a food contains GMO ingredients could hurt the producer once he or she tried to move products out of state.

“And let’s face it, if it has soybeans, canola oil, or corn, it probably has GE,” he said.

If food producers are required to use a GMO label they could face a competitive disadvantage, Harrison said.

Harrison also cited Vermont’s 1994 labeling law for rBST, an artificial growth hormone that increases production in dairy cows. The law, which was later ruled unconstitutional, required all dairy products produced with the use of rBST to be labeled in Vermont. When that law went into effect, Harrison said, no manufacturer chose to adhere to a law in one state, and store owners had to either label products themselves or choose not to carry them.

The legal issues

Nearly 20 years later, the rBST lawsuit — and the costly legal fees the state incurred — is still on the minds of Vermont officials and organizations as they look at GMO labeling.

Laura Murphy, associate director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Vermont Law School, has been working with VPIRG on the legal justifications for a GMO labeling law since the summer of 2012. Unlike in the rBST labeling bill, she said, H.112 clearly outlines the state’s concerns and justifications for requiring a label.

Additionally, while the FDA had already issued a regulation on the safety of rBST, the agency has only issued draft regulations addressing GMOs, so Vermont’s labeling requirement would not interfere with existing federal regulations.

“I think the bill really does a good job of laying out the reasons that GMO labeling is a good idea,” she said. “There’s a really strong basis for upholding it.”

Assistant Attorney General Bridget Asay told the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday that her office also believes the bill is constitutional. “We do view the bill as defensible — there are good arguments to support its constitutionality,” she said. “But defensible is not the same as ultimately prevailing,” she noted.

Still, the stakes would be high if Vermont were to lose a lawsuit challenging the law, because the state could then be asked to cover the plaintiff’s court fees. “The state’s cost could be upwards of $5 million in a case like this,” said Asay.

The bill must pass through the agriculture and also the judiciary committee before reaching the Senate floor for a vote.

Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, chair of the agriculture committee, said on Thursday that he hopes to bring the bill to a committee vote in the first week of February. He said the committee has gotten a wave of requests to testify on the issue, and that it will likely continue to hear testimony through the end of the month.

The committee also plans to invite public testimony at the Statehouse.

Andrea Suozzo

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  • Ben Maddox Follow the link and see how little NOFA is into science. NOFA actively promotes the quasi-religious pseudo science of Homeopathy. In my mind, this brings into question their ability to think critically when it comes to research.

    • Janice Prindle

      The queen of England uses homeopathy. Not my role model, but it’s not exactly a “quasi-religious pseudo science,” notwithstanding your opinion. NOFA is made up of people who work the soil in ways that science has proven are more sustainable than our industrial, GMO-polluted “farming.” The fact that some farmers may be interested in homeopathy doesn’t change that reality, whatever you think of homeopathy. It’s a false argument against the real threat to our environment that GMO crops (with their dependency upon ever-stronger pesticides) pose. And it is an argument that totally sidesteps the question, Do consumers have a right to know where their food is coming from, and what is in it? Do we have the right to this very basic information, so we can make our own choices, just the way you have chosen to opt out of homeopathy?

  • I thought Vermont was trying to start a healthcare system that would keep Vermont healthy?! Anyone that has done one lick of research on this would know that GMO’s cause health problems. Look at the foods we would be dealing with, Corn, soy, canola just to name a few. All these ingredients are not the best for our health, add GMO and you have an even more diminished produce and these ingredients enter our food in many forms from oils and extracts from these products, especially corn, and it’s in many many processed packaged foods.

    Want to get GMO out of your diet, just start reading labels before you buy. If there are any GMO extracts from these grains present, in any form, just don’t buy. What I am really concerned about with this is with children, always snacking. Avoid processed foods, they are loaded with bad stuff!!!! We don’t need no stinking law, we just need people to become responsible for their own health. Fight the Monsanto Giant! Stop buying their product! Read the label and get yourself a list of what crops are GMO.

    At this time these products are so integrated into our food system we will be hard pressed to see a law passed for labeling. Food is sold for profit and, at this point, most of what we buy that is packaged/processed, contains GMO. Our Legislators are not going to rule in the favor of the peoples health. They will be swayed by special interest and big money. They always are.

    • Janice Prindle

      I do read the labels, I use the Buycott app for smart phones to identify even so-called “organic” or “healthy” products (like Kashi) that are actually sold by the same companies that joined Monsanto in fighting labeling initiatives in other states.

      But I am retired, no longer juggling a job and feeding a family– and I am fed up with having to expend this kind of energy. It should not be an extra burden on consumers to do this kind of research just to buy food to live. We hold car makers to a higher standard; we don’t say it’s up to the consumer to research engineering and safety issues to decide if the car is safe to drive or not. Or drugs! Sure, we need a law.

      I don’t buy the argument that GMOs are so “integrated” labeling would be impossible. The same companies fighting the labeling efforts with their millions are labeling their products already for their overseas markets.

      They know very well where their corn and soy and canola is coming from. And more to the point, as Monsanto and its allies push for more GMO products — apples, salmon, for starters– it will get harder to trust any of the food we eat. We haven’t even touched on the environmental impacts. But finally, bottom line: we have a right to know. Period. We do need a law to enforce that right.

    • Kathy Leonard

      “Want to get GMO out of your diet, just start reading labels before you buy.”

      Heads up Ray: the purpose of this bill is to require labels to STATE whether or not ingredients are genetically modified. They currently are not required to be labeled — hence a nationwide effort. It’s done in Europe and elsewhere but the lobby opposed to it has deep pockets and connections in the U.S.

  • timothy price

    Not only are GMO foods helpful for driving business to the desears-care industries, but If UN Agenda 21 is to meet its goal of 85% in population reduction, GMO foods are absolutely necessary. It is the only way that the population can be prepared to succumb to selected viruses or pathogens that can attack a large mass of people, once they have been damaged by GMO placement of genes acquired though engineered food delivery systems. Agenda 21 must have GMOs throughout our food supply. Without them they cannot succeed.

  • Ben Maddox


    and cue the corporate conspiracy response.

    Generally when those who fear GMOs are presented with information about experiments and research that make them uncomfortable they turn immediately turn to the “science is top to bottom corrupt when it disagrees with me.” defense.

  • Paula Schramm

    Thanks to Janice Prindle for her thoughtful and sensible comments – this topic seems to attract extremists of all kinds…..

    I think it’s just common sense to want foods that we buy to have complete informational labels on them.

    The FDA conveniently decided that GMO crops were the “equivalent” of the unmodified food crop, and so didn’t need labeling. But 64 other countries recognize the need to label things more honestly, and are not so much under the thumb of bio-tech industry’s influence. The vast majority of the U.S. population does want food containing GMO products labeled . It just doesn’t seem that much to ask.

    The argument that these food products are too ” integrated into our food system” to expect labeling laws to pass is just laughable. What could be more “integrated” into our food than, say ,salt, or all the different kinds of sugars, and yet they are all faithfully labeled, and we expect and count on that for the sake of many health decisions we make.

    I could go on & on about statements in this article: for instance about GMO crops helping in the reduction in the use of pesticides…etc.
    But the bottom line here is that expecting to have our food labeled is pure common sense, an excellent public health practice and simply should be done.

    The main reason there is any problem with this is that very large and powerful bio-tech industries feel it threatens their grand business plans. That’s not a good enough reason to keep us from doing the right thing.

  • GMO food labeling is just right for the consumers to be protected the main problem is, what will Mosanto do now as GMO food labeling is spreading millions of money to hamper this campaign?

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