VPIRG canvassers hold signs during the group’s efforts to build support and advocate for a bill in favor of labeling GMOs in foods throughout the
VPIRG canvassers hold signs during the group's efforts to build support and advocate for a bill in favor of labeling GMOs in foods throughout the state. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Wednesday July 10, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Putney native Cordelia Fuller has chosen to spend her summer knocking on thousands of doors. She's traveling all over Vermont in all kinds of weather, and the 20-year-old admits that it's "a hard job." But Fuller believes lobbying for passage of a bill requiring labeling of genetically modified foods is well worth the work and easily beats flipping burgers or waiting tables.

"What better way to spend our summer than to be working on things we really care about?" Fuller said Tuesday morning outside Brattleboro Food Co-op.

She was standing with more than 60 fellow members of Vermont Public Interest Research Group's citizen-outreach team. The group of mostly college-aged activists is tasked with knocking on more than 80,000 doors this year, hoping to drum up support for state Senate passage of a GMO-labeling bill that already has passed the state House.

They've already reached about 58,000 of those doors, organizers said.

"They have been biking and walking and running all over Vermont," said Leah Marsters, VPIRG's assistant canvass director and campaign director.

Melanie Katz, campaign coordinator, dubbed it "the largest grass-roots effort in VPIRG history."

The goal, Katz said, is to hand-deliver thousands of postcards supporting the GMO bill to the state Senate later this year.

This week, team members are camping at Fort Dummer State Park and visiting homes across Windham County.


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They found a kindred soul in state Rep. Tristan Toleno, a Brattleboro Democrat and member of the state House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee.

Toleno said House approval of the GMO bill, which happened in May just as the state Legislature was adjourning for the year, was an opportunity to "embrace the change that Vermonters are seeking for themselves."

But many also have expressed concerns that the state could open itself to legal challenges from the commercial food industry, where opponents have argued that mandatory GMO labeling is akin to an unfair "scarlet letter" and is not based on science.

There is no law in any state mandating immediate GMO labeling. In June, Connecticut lawmakers approved a labeling bill that is contingent upon four other states -- one of which must border Connecticut -- adopting similar rules.

The Vermont House bill says the GMO law would take effect July 1, 2015 or 18 months after "two other states enact legislation with requirements substantially comparable to the requirements of this act."

It remains to be seen, however, what the state Senate may do with that bill and, if passed by the full Legislature, whether Gov. Peter Shumlin will sign it in its final form.

"It's an incredible challenge. It's an uphill battle," Toleno said at Tuesday's news conference outside the Co-op. "As you might imagine, it's a complex policy issue, and it's one where there's a lot of money invested internationally in trying to prevent ordinary citizens from having this freedom."

Toleno and other supporters argue that the House bill can withstand a legal fight.

"I think that the message to the Senate should be, this is a well-thought-out bill," Toleno said. "It's reasonable, it's defensible and we should be less concerned about whether Vermont goes first and more concerned about what Vermonters want from their government."

The state's food co-ops have banded together to back the bill. Sabine Rhyne, the Brattleboro Co-op's shareholder and community relations manager, said GMO labeling is a "natural thing" that shouldn't require so much debate.

"People should be able to know what they buy," Rhyne said.

She also praised the young VPIRG activists standing in a group behind her.

"Boy, what amazing work these folks have been doing," Rhyne said.

Fuller noted that she has begun to lose her voice after so many GMO discussions. But she sees that as a fair trade-off for boosting the cause.

"Every day we go out there ... we're making more voices heard," Fuller said. "It's really, really inspiring, and that's why I'm out here."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.