Supporters of GMO labeling law fill House chamber

Janice Russotti and Shane Bowley, both of South Burlington, deliver their testimony on a GMO labeling bill in song. Photo by Andrea Suozzo/for VTDigger

Janice Russotti and Shane Bowley, both of South Burlington, deliver their testimony on a GMO labeling bill in song. Photo by Andrea Suozzo/for VTDigger

“Don’t GMO me, bro!”

Al Walskey’s remark drew laughter, but also summarized the feelings of almost all of the 50 speakers at a Senate hearing on GMO labeling Thursday night at the Statehouse.

Walskey, a Vietnam veteran from Berkshire, raised concerns about Monsanto Corp., the agricultural chemical giant that produces some of the nation’s genetically engineered seed. He cited the health effects of another Monsanto product, Agent Orange, which sickened many soldiers in Vietnam. (Dow Chemical also produced the defoliant agent for the U.S. military.)

More than 200 people filled the floor of the House chamber for the joint hearing by the Senate Agriculture and Judiciary committees on H.112, a bill that mandates the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients.

The House passed the bill in May, and the Senate Agriculture Committee took the bill up beginning first week of the legislative session this January.

Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, vice-chair of the committee, said Friday that the panel approved the bill, 4-1, without a trigger clause that would delay implementation of GMO labeling until other states pass similar bills. H.112 now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

During two hours of public testimony Thursday, only one person opposed the bill.

“I appreciate all the hard work that’s gone into (the law) … but I think it should be stronger,” said Michael Bald of Royalton.

The bill aims to help Vermont consumers “avoid the potential risks associated with genetically engineered food,” noting concerns about human health and environmental impacts of GMO crops.

While 88 percent of the nation’s corn crop and 93 percent of its soybean crop is grown from seeds engineered to tolerate harsh conditions or resist herbicides, surveys nationally and in Vermont have found that the majority of consumers support the labeling of foods containing GMO ingredients. A 2004 University of Vermont survey found that more than 75 percent of Vermonters supported GMO labeling.

At Thursday’s hearing, the message of most of the speakers, who identified themselves as farmers, doctors, veterans, parents and scientists, came down to one point: They want more information about the food they are buying at the grocery story.

“I’m concerned, and I want to know what’s in my food,” said Alton Smith of Wolcott.

Speakers drew comparisons with past human health and environmental cases, including DDT, cigarettes and dioxin.

“Prior to 1964, cigarette manufacturers assured the American people it was safe. Today, we know that’s ridiculous,” said Claudia Rose of Enosburg Falls.

Though Rose said there is no conclusive evidence that GMO foods cause human health problems, she called for labeling as research continues.

“I want to be able to choose,” she said.

Sylvia Knight (center) of Charlotte delivers her testimony to the Senate Agriculture and Judiciary Committees on Thursday night. Photo by Andrea Suozzo/for VTDigger

Sylvia Knight (center) of Charlotte delivers her testimony to the Senate Agriculture and Judiciary Committees on Thursday night. Photo by Andrea Suozzo/for VTDigger

Morgan MacIver, a student at Twinfield Union High School, also said GMO labeling is a knowledge issue, particularly as she prepares to graduate and make choices about her health and the food she eats.

“It’s important that I gather all the information I can in making healthy and informed decisions, like I’ve been encouraged to do,” MacIver said. “This is why I want to see labels on genetically engineered foods.”

Paula Schramm of Enosburg Falls said she recognizes the scientific advances that GMO seeds have made and could make, but that she is concerned by corporate ownership of these technologies.

“I’m sure there’s an important place for these technologies,” she said, “but I’m alarmed about the way big corporations have managed to co-opt and control the narrative about using these technologies in this country.”

Elizabeth Howard of Norwich is concerned about the use of GMO seeds and herbicides in general. She said Roundup, an herbicide used together with the popular “Roundup Ready” corn seeds, kills milkweed, which is the primary food source for monarch butterflies. She said she hopes to see action on the bill before the monarchs fly back into the U.S. from Mexico in just a few weeks.

“Please, allow those of us who care about monarchs and other pollinators to really make a choice,” she said.

Since many GMO seeds are developed and patented by private companies, however, lawmakers and consumers have acknowledged the potential for a lawsuit from an industry group or from grocery associations, whose members would have a role in implementing a labeling law. The threat of a lawsuit reminds some of the 1995 court case against the state’s labeling law for milk from cows treated with rBST, a hormone that increases milk production. The U.S. Court of Appeals, second circuit, overturned the law on the basis that it violated federal free speech and interstate commerce laws, costing the state millions of dollars in legal fees.

Bald, the sole opposing voice, reminded the crowd of that legislative process and the ensuing court case, cautioning that a lawsuit would almost certainly carry a high price tag.

“That was not legal cavalierism by the state of Vermont,” he said. “That was corporate retribution.”

But many others, like Michele Robbins of Williston, told the senators that Vermont is a state for firsts — the first to label compact fluorescent lightbulbs as containing mercury, and the first to legalize civil unions.

Several speakers said Vermont should be the first state to pass a bill requiring GMO labeling, adding that the bill should not include a “trigger clause” that would delay implementation of labels until other states pass similar bills. The House version does not contain a trigger, but Senate Judiciary might add that clause.

Stuart Smith of South Strafford told the lawmakers, “Show that courage and dispense of the trigger.”

“We want you to stand up for us, and we will stand with you,” said Steven Barry of Manchester.

Andrea Suozzo

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  • Michael Colby

    This bill does nothing about Vermont’s number one crop: GMO corn (80,000+ acres planted last year). Why? Because the labeling bill exempts Vermont’s diary and meat products. Talk about hypocritical.

    Instead of meaningless, “feel good” legislation, we ought to be having a serious discussion about the GMOs being grown right here by our “beloved” farmers. And talking about the GMO-laced products that our equally beloved corporations (Ben & Jerry’s/Cabot) are selling.

  • steve merrill

    Good luck getting these folks to actually DO what their constituents want, no matter if ALL the testimony supports it..They listen to lobbyists and their “donors”, and now that they’ve allowed themselves to get $10,000 per cycle vs. the $1,000/cycle WE don’t stand a chance!! Just ask folks like Jim Harrison of the “Vt. Grocer’s Association” or the lobbyists (unnamed) who are hired by Monsanto and Pioneer seeds..Harrison and etc. killed a packaging bill in 2005 (?) while our landfills fill up, killed a bottle deposit bill that would have cleaned up our roadsides, and on and on..Get it yet? WE get NOTHING as long as “lobbyists” ply the hallways and Vt. Constitution’s Article 55 goes unenforced!! Read it people..” gifts, rewards in meat, drink, moneys, or otherwise..”And read Art. 69 about corporations..Why have a constitution if it’s just ignored? Maybe somebody could challenge them on these grounds or change the motto of the state to “ignoring our Constitution and citizens wishes since 1791”..Steve Merrill, North Troy

    • Paula Schramm

      Your Senator supported this, Steve…. Apparently he was listening to his constituent ! One thing about tiny Vermont, everyone can get to know their reps. No amount of money is going to impress anyone if they know their constituents will stand behind them when they vote the right way. It’s up to us to get it together.

  • Bravo Steve Merrill! Just my sentiments. I am nervous about this GMO law that is being debated. In this day and age and with all the info we have at our finger tips, why should our Legislators need to have a discussion about GMO’s. All laboratory rats have shown tumors, diminished reproductive abilities and a genetic footprint of the chemical glyphosate past from generation to generation. Pig Farmers and cattle Farmers are reporting bad health results from feeding GMO grains, especially corn. Why do our Legislators need this public input, are they totally ignorant? No, I don’t think so. I am nervous these hearings are nothing more than appeasing the people to make it look like they tried but really, they are going to go with the Corporations. Just think of the favors they would receive for the next elections. If this bill does not become law, we need to change the faces in Montpelier. Career Politicians are selling Vermont’s Sovereignty to the highest bidding Corporation and trampling the State Constitution.

  • Health effects of rats fed GMO’s – graphic!

  • Barry Kade

    At present people of the United /States are unwillingly part of an experiment to determine the long term effects of GMO foods. We cannot compare ourselves to guinea pigs. If we were guinea pigs in a scientifically conducted study there would be careful measurement of inputs and a control group. If we pass this labeling law, then we can be the control group.
    Go science!

  • sandra bettis

    actually, ben and jerry’s is supposedly gmo free now. let’s hope others will follow.

    • victor ialeggio

      although eating ice cream does not represent the height of civic engagement — as a sometime ice cream-eater, I would note that B&J has already transitioned a number of its products & clearly labels each of those which are free of gmo sweeteners/extenders etc. B&J has been an active participant in the Right to Know campaign right along. for whatever reason, the parent company Unilever seems to be laying off them at present.

      michael colby, your remark is well taken. even more troublesome, though, is the possibility of corporate suits for theft of intellectual property against neighboring (non-gmo) farmers whose fields may be contaminated by drifted pollen from adjacent, or even merely proximate, gmo crops.

      • Paula Schramm

        “even more troublesome”- no, I don’t think this will be a problem in Vermont any time soon. Monsanto has used this successfully as one tactic to coerce the owners of huge mid-western soy & corn farms to adopt GM crops. Now that they have had such successful dominance of the market, they won’t waste that kind of bullying on the relatively small scale Vermont growers…why ? Because they know it would backfire badly on them. We came close to having a “Strict liability- farmer protection act” that put the responsibility for “contaminated crops”right on the patent- owner of the seeds ( Monsanto If they pull that stuff here, it will simply unite all Vermonters even more strongly against them. They will just keep fighting labeling efforts for as long as they can….but it’s clear that the labeling campaign is waking up the people of the U.S. at last about GMOs.
        All the critics making comments here should also rally behind this effort and do what they can to make it succeed.

  • Michael Colby

    Not true, Sandra. the farmers of Ben & Jerry’s feed GMO corn to their cows, representing a significant percentage of the 80,000 acres that are planted in Vermont. The only way they can proclaim to be GMO-free is to go organic, which they have steadfastly refused to do because it would not allow them to “maximize profit.”

    • James Maroney

      Hurrah for Michael who alone among commentators has noticed that Ben & Jerry’s makes ice cream, the principal ingredient in which is milk, which in their case is not sourced as organic! Michael notes that B&J’s singular pursuit of profit is endemic to corporations; but he does not mention that B&J buys class II milk, which is priced below the median Vermont dairy farmer’s cost of production. That is why they champion labeling GMO products because they buy strictly class II, conventional milk, which is not only cheaper than organic, it is made by growing and feeding GMO corn, which is the source of 55-60% of the pollution in Lake Champlain and which is the proximate cause of farm attrition and rampant, rural economic decay in Vermont. Thanks Ben & Jerry’s for standing up for such high-minded ideals and for being such fine members of the Vermont community, upon which by the way, you feed!

  • Lance Hagen

    The problem I see with this law is that the potential consequences could far exceed the benefits. Presently 90% of the food we eat contains genetically engineered ingredient. So placing a label that states “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering” (words from the bill H.112), does not provide one any additional significant information that common sense already tells you.

    As for the consequences, since Vermont is a small market, many companies may just decide not to sell their products in Vermont. So when you go to pick up your box of Kellogg’s Special K, it won’t be on the shelf and there may not be a replacement product. The second consequence, are companies agree to label for Vermont but are unwilling to use this label in other markets due to the health connotations (true or not). And these companies will not do this for free. So prices will most likely increase. The third consequence, mentioned by the Attorney General, are lawsuits, which could cost the state million of $ in legal fees.

    But …. Hey, this is Vermont. We have done stupid things before.

    • I imagine I could survive without Special K and other such commodities. Local food growers/producers will have a greater share of the market and that would be a huge PLUS!

    • Kelly Cummings

      Lance could you clarify please? Are you saying you would prefer to eat GMO containing foods, like Kellogs Special K, rather than not have it available to you? And if yes, then that is a good reason not to pass H:112?

      I know you eat. How do you feel about feeding yourself and your family foods with “health connotations” (true or not)?

      In order to just keep prices down you would be willing to eat foods with “health connotations” (true or not)?

      Please,and I mean this sincerely, explain how you have decided this is acceptable? I would like to know this.

      It would be a really tacky thing for a company to raise their prices for two little words, Contains GMOs. But you may be right and they may take advantage if they can. I say shame on them if they do. Like plywood in a hurricane… would leave me wondering about the character and integrity of that company that’s for sure.


    • Paula Schramm

      Guess we will just have to survive on non-GMO Cheerios…. OMG what a horrible fate. At least the generic brand is the cheapest cereal I know, so we’ll be able to afford it.

  • David Dempsey

    If this reckless bill is passed, those voting yes should be required to be personally liable for all losses incurred from any lawsuits that the state lose because of it. I don’t mind paying taxes, but I don’t want the state to risk my tax dollars on an unconstitutional law. I’d rather buy lottery tickets, at least that would go to the education fund.

    • Paula Schramm

      David, you don’t want the state to risk your tax dollars on a well-researched, strong bill backed up by Constitutional arguments, but you’re willing to risk the health of everyone in this country who eats unlabeled food and has no idea if it’s contributing to their allergies, gut problems, diabetes, infertility or long-term possibility of cancer ( etc., etc. ) Labels at least give us some clues to where research needs to go in proving these foods safe ( which has not yet been proven ).

  • Connie Godin

    I knew it wouldn’t take long for the lawsuit stuff to emerge. This is what has killed the bill up to the time the House passed it last session.

  • GMO’s are already labeled. If the label does not say “Organic” just don’t buy it. Individuals do have the power to shop and the power to not buy foods that contain GMO’s.As individuals I hope everyone is fighting the war to do away with GMO’s. Just say no!

    • Paula Schramm

      Ray, there are foods that don’t have GMOs that are not also organic. Why can’t I have labels so I can make the choices I want to make?
      Labels are a public health tool to educate and inform, and to provide a trail of information in doing research. Do we have to give up all the benefits of good labels just to mollify Monsanto ? This bill is written to be backed up by the Constitution. Let’s stand up for democracy, not bend to corporatocracy.

  • David Dempsey

    Paula, no I don’t want the legislature to risk my tax dollars on risky legislation. But why do you say I am willing to risk the health of everyone in the country and that I am against labeling. I’m sorry to disappoint, but your wrong on both charges. When Vermont passes laws that make us the first in the nation to do something, there can be financial risks. Other states are happy to let Vermont take those risks and see what happens. My opinion is there are better ways to take on the issue. I think it would be better to make it a federal issue. The supporters of labeling nationwide could organize and take the issue to congress. If they could pass a law requiring the labeling, the issue of uncostitutionality would go away. But that is just my opinion. I have thick skin and I can take criticism, but please don’t criticize me based on your assumptions.

    • Paula Schramm

      David – Thanks for setting me straight, that you’re not against labeling, and that you understand the potential for there to be health problems that are difficult to study because what we’re eating is not clearly identified.
      I understand your concerns about risking tax dollars in taking on a threatened suit by Monsanto or their stand-in. But it isn’t really clear how we can “make this a federal issue”. We can, however , do it on a state level, and as we have seen , with other initiatives…that is how federal action is finally forced. What I’m saying is that it’s a risk ,yes, (although not as great a risk as fighting the milk suit) but allowing Monsanto to continue to bully and delay any action will mean many more years of their control of so much of our food supply. And that’s a risk on a grand scale….even if, as you are making clear, it’s not one you want to take either.

  • sandra bettis

    it would be great if the feds would do it – but, do you really see that happening? we’ll all be dead before that happens.

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