BRATTLEBORO -- Each of the state's 30 senators soon will be getting a special delivery courtesy of the "largest outreach effort ever conducted" by Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
VPIRG staffers knocked on tens of thousands of doors and traveled to every town in Vermont -- including a big July outreach effort in Windham County -- to gather 30,000 postcards in support of mandatory labeling of genetically modified food.
GMO-labeling legislation passed the state House in May, and VPIRG now will distribute those postcards to senators in the hopes that the smaller legislative body will approve the bill when the 2014 session convenes in January.
"We're going to be meeting with senators on this issue from now until the session starts," said Falko Schilling, VPIRG consumer protection advocate.
There currently is no law in any state mandating immediate labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients. Connecticut lawmakers have passed a GMO law that would take effect if four other states adopt similar rules.
The bill approved by Vermont's House of Representatives says GMO labeling 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."
Some worry that the first state to enact GMO labeling will be sued by the commercial food industry. But VPIRG is lobbying for what it calls "common-sense labeling legislation."
The results of a summer-canvassing effort in support of GMO legislation were announced at a rally Thursday in Montpelier. The campaign included a stop in Windham County, where staffers camped at Fort Dummer State Park and staged a rally outside Brattleboro Food Co-op.
State Rep. Tristan Toleno, a Brattleboro Democrat who spoke at that rally, praised VPIRG's efforts on Thursday.
"I'm thrilled at the tremendous impact these young people have made," Toleno said in an e-mail to the Reformer. "Their work should help the Vermont Senate understand how committed the Vermont citizenry is on this issue as they take up the bill passed by the House next January."
VPIRG had said organizers expected to collect more than 3,000 postcards in Windham County. On Thursday, Schilling did not yet have a tally from the county but said the 60-member canvassing team saw a "really strong response" here.
The same was true statewide.
"The reactions were actually very positive," Schilling said. "We saw that in the high number of people who participated."
The 30,000 resulting signatures doubled a previous VPIRG record that had been set in 2010 during a campaign focused on clean-energy development. Schilling said senators will receive GMO-labeling postcards only from those constituents they represent.
"It's been quite an effort here over the past few weeks. We've taken these postcards and separated them by district," he said.
VPIRG also will work to "database" those postcards so that lawmakers receive electronic copies.
Schilling expects that the GMO bill will move through the state Senate's Agriculture and Judiciary committees in early 2014.
"A lot of the issues that people are concerned about are going to be aired in the Judiciary Committee, but we're excited for that conversation," Schilling said.
Both of Windham County's senators -- Democrats Peter Galbraith of Townshend and Jeanette White of Putney -- have said they support mandatory GMO labeling. Galbraith has said he expects the legislation to pass somewhat easily, but White -- who serves on the Judiciary Committee -- said potential legal challenges could be a "sticking point" for some senators.
Thursday's VPIRG rally included state Sen. David Zuckerman, a Hinesburg Progressive who serves as vice chairman of the Agriculture Committee.
"I am encouraged by the overwhelming reception that these young people received," Zuckerman said in a prepared statement. "I think it shows that there is broad public support for the passage of strong GMO-labeling legislation this session."
Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he supports the idea of GMO labeling but has not committed to signing the state's bill in its current form -- or any GMO legislation.
"I would ask that the Senate Judiciary Committee continue to see if there's ways to even make it stronger," Shumlin told the Reformer in a recent interview.
Schilling said VPIRG has been talking with the governor about GMO labeling.
"We're in pretty regular communication with the administration on this issue," Schilling said. "I understand that they want to make sure that we're passing the strongest bill possible, and so do we."
Also attending Thursday's rally was U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. He supports mandatory GMO labeling and earlier this year tried -- unsuccessfully -- to push through a farm-bill amendment that would have allowed states to approve such laws.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.