Residents of Vermont could become the first Americans to know which foods contain genetically modified ingredients, thanks to a landmark law signed Thursday by the state’s governor.
The first-of-its-kind law requires food companies to label which products contain GMO ingredients.
“I am proud of Vermont for being the first state in the nation to ensure that Vermonters will know what is in their food,” Gov. Pete Shumlin, a Democrat, said of H. 112, An Act Relating to the Labeling of Food Produced with Genetic Engineering.
It passed the House, 99-42, and the Senate, 28-2.
Shumlin’s signature does not mean that Vermont residents will see GMO labeling anytime soon. The bill won’t go into effect until July 1, 2016, and also likely will face legal challenges from the food industry. Shumlin announced a legal defense fund, Food Fight Fund Vermont, where donations can be made to assist in the legal battle.
The new law is a monumental victory for GMO critics, who had suffered setbacks at the ballot in California and Washington state after being outspent by wide margins.
‘Right to Know’
“Every Vermonter has a right to know what is in their food,” Shap Smith (D-Morrisville), the speaker of Vermont’s House of Representatives, told the Associated Press. “Genetically engineered foods potentially pose risks to human health and the environment. I am proud to be the first state in the nation to recognize that people deserve to know whether the food they consume is genetically modified or engineered.”
State Senator Bobby Starr also supported the bill.
“What it came down to is, the people I represent wanted it,” Starr (D-Essex and Orleans counties) said. Starr told USA Today that he has no opinion on genetically modified food but voted for the measure because of his belief in individual rights. “In the end I said, ‘Well, individual rights are more important than an industry’s rights.'”
Biotech companies acknowledged it was a setback.
“We weren’t able to get traction,” said Karen Batra of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group for GMO companies which opposed the bill. “We had the numbers against us in the legislature. It was a priority with Democrats.”
Victory in a Long Battle
The GMO labeling battle in Vermont has been a long one, and labeling measures have been circulating in the state legislature for 10 years. Vermont was also the first state to require the labeling of GMO seeds. In 2006, the legislature passed a measure that would have made manufacturers liable for damage to organic farms caused by GMO seeds, but a former governor vetoed it.
“We’ve been talking GMOs for 15 years,” state Senator David Zuckerman (D-Chittenden) said. Zuckerman, an organic farmer, introduced a labeling bill years ago when he was a state representative. “That’s a huge difference compared to other states.”
Citizens made the difference, one expert said.
“We have like a 20-year history of working on these issues,” Dave Rogers, the policy director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, said of Vermont. “We have a whole population of educated activists.”
Observers credit an organization called the Vermont Right to Know Coalition which collected around $1 million in support of the measure, USA Today reported. The money was used for behind-the-scenes lobbying and low-key promotion efforts such as newspaper ads. Commentators have also noted that the opposition was very quiet.
Legal Battle Expected
The law’s supporters expect food industry groups such as the Biotechnology Industry Organization or the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association to sue Vermont to try and block the bill from becoming law.
Vermont Right to Know has already hired Emord and Associates, a law firm, to help with a legal defense.
“One theory out there is they want to fight it in court,” Amy Shollenberger, a lobbyist for Vermont Right to Know, said of the food industry. “It’s been a mystery. I’m sure there’s a strategy to it.”
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Supporter Laura Murphy, a law professor at the Vermont Law School, believes H. 112 is constitutional. She noted that courts have approved food labeling laws in other states.
Technically, Vermont is not the first state to pass a GMO labeling law. Connecticut and Maine have GMO labeling requirements on the books, but those laws would only go into effect if other states require GMO labeling. Vermont is, though, the first state to pass a law with no “trigger.”
Around 64 nations, including China, Australia, India, Russia, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Thailand and Saudi Arabia require GMO labeling, according to the website Just Label It!
Do you believe all foods should disclose whether they have GMO ingredients? Let us know in the comments below.