MONTPELIER, Vt. Thousands of people worldwide are expected to protest a giant in agricultural biotechnology today following a historic move toward labeling genetically modified organisms in Vermont earlier this month.
On May 10, a GMO bill — H.112 — passed the 150-member Vermont House of Representatives, 99-42, three years after legislation was introduced into the Vermont General Assembly that would require genetically modified organisms be labeled.
The Vermont House’s vote marked the furthest any GMO labeling bill has made it through the legislative process in the U.S. Vermont lawmakers say the 30-member Senate will assume the bill when it reconvenes in January and that the votes to pass it are secure.
Should that happen, Vermont would be the first state in the U.S. with a GMO labeling mandate; it would take effect in July 2015.
Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin said recently that he would sign the bill into law when it crosses his desk.
Connecticut lawmakers are also pushing ahead with bipartisan legislation requiring the labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients.
The Senate on Tuesday passed a bill, 35 to 1, that requires food entirely or partially genetically engineered to include the words “Produced with Genetic Engineering” on the packaging, as of July 2016, or 2015 if several Eastern states pass similar legislation.
Various exceptions are included in the bill, such as for products grown by local farms and food prepared for immediate consumption.
About one-third of Vermont’s legislators co-sponsored H.112, evidence of its broad support. Recent polls in Vermont and across the nation show strong backing for GMO labeling.
“I believe that Vermonters, and all Americans, should have the right to know what kind of food they’re eating, whether it’s organic, natural, artificial, Kosher, gluten-free, vegan, GMO, non-GMO, or containing allergens,” said Democratic Rep. Teo Zagar, who gladly signed on to H.112.
Zagar explained he supported the bill because he grew “increasingly troubled by the growing number of independent studies that indicate possible unintended consequences from genetically-engineered food.” He said he believes in full disclosure in a free market and “because I was elected to represent my constituents and the people of Vermont — of which an overwhelming majority demands GMO food labeling.”
The March Against Monsanto was scheduled to take place at 11 a.m. this morning, with simultaneous demonstrations on six continents, 36 countries and 47 U.S. states.
Thousands were expected to walk in symbolic opposition to GMOs in more than 250 U.S. cities.
With the March Against Monsanto, organizers are calling for more public education about Monsanto, a repeal of the recently signed U.S. Monsanto Protection Act, and labeling of GMOs.
When legislation first hit Montpelier three years ago, talks of a possible lawsuit from Monsanto made lawmakers balk.
Zagar said Vermont legislators and the state’s attorney general’s office still understand the risk of a lawsuit from the biotech industry but the public’s right to know outweighs that risk.
“If we didn’t do the right thing out of fear of corporate litigation brought down to us, to protect their own financial interests, then we would send the wrong message to our constituents,” Zagar said.
Potential litigation is exactly what caused Vermont Republican Sen. Norm McAllister to vote against the GMO bill in 2010, and it’s why he will vote “no” again in January.
“Nothing has changed for me,” said McAllister, who once raised dairy cows and goats and now grows produce. He sits on the Vermont Senate Agriculture Committee. “It’s bad policy to enact laws that you’re going to go to court over.”
McAllister said he understands the philosophical arguments against GMOs, but, “We’ve been eating them for close to 30 years. Most people just haven’t known. They’re here. They’ve been here.”
If the primary concern is information, consumers should assume responsibility for educating themselves about GMOs in food and stop putting the onus on the industry, McAllister said.
“If people are really concerned, they should just buy organic,” he said.
McAllister said he worries about how H.112 might violate interstate trade agreements, but Zagar said it doesn’t, because it treats food produced inside and outside Vermont equally.
“This law is good for any state, because it helps consumers become fully informed about the food they’re buying to feed their families,” Zagar said. “Nothing is more important to the health and well-being of society than the food we eat and how it is produced.”
GMO-labeling efforts have been underway nationally. California’s Prop 37 saw narrow defeat in 2012. Similar bills have been introduced this year in Connecticut, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Arizona, Illinois and Iowa.
Associated Press reporting was included in this article.