MONTPELIER -- A bill making its way toward expected passage in the Vermont Legislature would require labeling for foods containing genetically modified ingredients and set up a special fund to defend against expected industry lawsuits.
A House committee on Tuesday tentatively endorsed a Senate change to a labeling bill that calls for a $1.5 million fund, to be paid for by public donations, settlements of other suits obtained by the attorney general's office and, if needed, legislative appropriation.
The money, which also would be used for implementation of a new law, would go only part of the way toward the estimated cost of up to $8 million defending Vermont's role as likely the first state to require labeling of genetically modified ingredients.
Ballot initiatives in Washington state and California drew millions of dollars in campaign advertising before being defeated by voters. In Vermont, lobbying of lawmakers by the food and biotech industries has been quieter, while an impassioned public has clamored for a labeling law.
A sign-up sheet for those wishing to testify at a public hearing in February showed 80 in favor of legislation and one opposed. The one person who testified against the bill said it wasn't strong enough.
Shoreham organic vegetable farmer Will Stevens, who also serves in the House in Vermont's part-time Legislature, said all his garlic, winter squash, potatoes and other vegetables are certified organic and free of genetic modifications.
Stevens said his specialty is "relational agriculture," in which 95 percent of his produce is sold within 15 miles of his farm to consumers who know and care where their food comes from and how it's grown.
Stevens, a member of the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee, said he thought the labeling bill, which he supports, would "begin a conversation about farming methods, food systems," leading to "a more informed and engaged consumer."
Francie Caccavo, who with her husband David owns Olivia's Croutons in New Haven, said her products also have no genetic modifications. But she said she has concerns about the legislation, including its effects on low-income consumers.
"I'm concerned that our options will be fewer and our food costs would be higher. And it will impact those who aren't in a position to make the choice," Caccavo said.
The federal Food and Drug Administration and an industry group known as BIO, for Biotechnology Industry Organization, both maintain that there's no material difference between food produced with genetic engineering and traditional food.
A statement of purpose in the Vermont legislation questions that stance. It says there is a lack of consensus among scientific studies on the safety of genetically modified foods, and no long-term epidemiological studies in the United States examining their effects. Genetically modified foods "potentially pose risks to health, safety, agriculture, and the environment," the legislation says.
Vermont's famously liberal Legislature has passed a range of ambitious laws in recent years only to see them struck down in the courts. Those include measures to label milk from cows given a human-made growth hormone; what was, until the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down, the most restrictive campaign finance law in the country and legislation designed to close the state's lone nuclear plant.
Legislative supporters say they think they've tweaked the bill on genetically modified foods to make it impervious to lawsuits, and Gov. Peter Shumlin has indicated he will sign it.
"All I can tell you is that I firmly believe that Vermonters deserve to know what's in their food," Shumlin said at a news conference last week. "I believe that we now have a bill that has passed the Senate and the House coming to me that is legally defensible."