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.
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 will also invite public testimony at a hearing 6 p.m. Jan. 28 at the Statehouse.