Vermont will be the first state in the nation to require food manufacturers to label products containing genetically modified ingredients. It will also likely be the first state to defend the GMO labeling law in court, state officials say.
The fight ahead did not cloud a festive bill-signing on the Statehouse steps Thursday afternoon where more than 100 pro-labeling public health advocates, lawmakers and residents cheered in support of the landmark policy.
“Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: They want to know what’s in their food,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said. “We are pro-choice. We are pro-information. Vermont gets it right with this bill.”
The law requires food manufacturers selling in Vermont to label products containing genetically engineered ingredients starting July 1, 2016. These products can also no longer be labeled “natural” or “naturally made.”
Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, who has been pushing for the bill for much of his nearly two decades in the Legislature, said Vermont’s law will create a “domino effect” across the nation.
“This is one of the cases where grassroots democracy really did win the day and hopefully we can carry it on into the future,” Zuckerman said.
Most commodity crops sold in the U.S. are genetically engineered to ward off pests and withstand applications of weed-killing herbicides. The majority of processed foods sold in supermarkets contain genetically modified ingredients.
There is no scientific consensus whether genetically modified foods are safe for consumption. But the pro-labeling chorus in Vermont was about consumers’ “right to know” what is in their food.
Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said lawmakers received letters from multinational companies threatening to challenge the state’s policy in court.
“A lot of times that scares people. But you know what? Not us,” Campbell said. “We are going to do what is right for the people of Vermont and the people of this country. And that’s to make sure that you have the right to know what is in your food.”
The biotechnology industry, which manufactures genetically engineered food products, opposes Vermont’s legislation. Industry representatives prefer a national solution instead and there have been many predictions that they will sue Vermont over the law.
“Unfortunately, when labels are mandated to promote one product over another, as this one in Vermont, the additional cost burden is placed on the state’s farmers, food manufacturers, grocers and consumers,” said Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for Biotechnology Industry Organization, the world’s largest industry trade group, in a statement Thursday.
She said genetically modified crops are as safe as their non-GM counterparts. Programs like Vermont’s, she said, could “needlessly” increase food costs for the average household by as much as $400 per year.
The Vermont Attorney General anticipates defending the law in court, which he estimates could cost $1 million to win and $5 million or more to lose.
“The constitutionality of the GMO labeling law will undoubtedly be challenged,” Sorrell said in a statement.
“I can make no predictions or promises about how the courts will ultimately rule but I can promise that my office will mount a vigorous and zealous defense of the law that has so much support from Vermont consumers,” Sorrell said.
That’s why the bill includes a $1.5 million special fund reserved for defending the state in court. This money would be raised from state appropriations, private donations and surplus settlement proceeds. The state is taking private donations through a newly created donation website, Foodfightfundvt.org.
Paul Burns is executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which organized a grassroots campaign backing the labeling law that gathered more than 32,000 signatures across the state.
“By passing this law with no strings attached, Vermont has sent a message out loud and clear: that no company – no matter how big, no matter how rich, no matter how powerful – can deny you the right to know what’s in your food,” Burns said.
Unlike other states’ GMO labeling policies that would take effect only when neighboring states pass similar policies, Vermont’s law does not have a so-called trigger.
“We aren’t waiting for anybody else … to us it’s OK to stand up and protect our citizens,” Burns said.
But opponents of the bill question whether Vermont has a large enough market to force food manufacturers to label products.
“Will hundreds or thousands of food producers agree to separately label their products exclusively for the Vermont market, because of this law, or will they simply decide to ‘write Vermont off’ and not sell their products in Vermont?” said Walter Judge, a lawyer with the Vermont firm Downs Rachlin Martin.
Environmentalists point out that genetically engineered crops allow for the heavy application of weed killers, and U.S. farmers this year are using more herbicides to kill off herbicide-resistant “superweeds.”
Carl Russell chairs the board for Rural Vermont, an agricultural advocacy organization supporting the policy.
“It now gives people the opportunity to not only know what goes in their food, but it also gives them a choice to support the kind of agriculture that they want to see in the state of Vermont,” Russell said.
This article was updated at 5:45 p.m. Thursday.