The Vermont Legislature made a bold move by being the first in the nation to approve a bill that requires the labeling of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The requirements would take effect July 1, 2016, once Gov. Peter Shumlin signs the bill into law, which he has indicated he will do.
GMOs -- often used in crop plants -- have been changed at their genetic roots to be resistant to insects, germs or herbicides. The federal Food and Drug Administration and the Biotechnology Industry Organization say there's no material difference between food produced with genetic engineering and those without GMOs.
However, the Vermont legislation 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. Some scientists and activists worry about potential effects on soil health and pollination of neighboring crops.
Regardless of whatever conclusions the scientific studies produce, however, consumers still have the right to know what's in their food. That's the basis behind this bill, and that's why advocacy groups here in Vermont and across the nation are applauding the legislation.
"This is a huge victory for consumers everywhere," Falko Schilling, consumer protection advocate with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said in a statement.
Last summer, VPIRG canvassers went to every city, town, village grant and gore in Vermont and collected over 30,000 signatures in support of GMO labeling. This overwhelming show of public support made it clear to lawmakers that Vermonters want GMO foods labeled, and they want them labeled now.
"When people stand up and speak with one voice, real change can happen," Schilling said.
"This is a historic day for consumers' right to know," said Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, in a statement. "We urge the food industry to drop its legal war against consumers' right to know and instead begin listening to its consumers on this issue. We urge companies to offer not just the foods that are most convenient to grow or process, but the foods consumers really want, fully labeled."
The legal war to which Halloran was referring is a possible lawsuit that may be brought against the state by the food and biotech industries. The Washington, D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food producers, called the Vermont legislation a step in the wrong direction.
"It sets the nation on a costly and misguided path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that will do nothing to advance the safety of consumers," the grocers' association said in a statement.
Trying to have 50 different state rules about what goes on food packaging "gets very costly, very confusing and very difficult for the entire food industry to comply with," the association's president, Jim Harrison, told the Associated Press.
We might be sympathetic to that argument if not for the fact that the food and biotech industries are also fighting adequate labeling requirements on the federal level. The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014, for example, is a proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing. Despite what the name implies, and what the giant agribusiness industry claims to advocate, it does not create a national, uniform labeling requirement.
In addition to denying states like Vermont the right to enact their own GMO labeling laws, the bill also would codify the existing, inadequate system of voluntary labeling and compel the FDA to define GMOs as natural.
The bottom line is, the industry does not want any type of GMO labels on the food products they make because they know how consumers would react. According to Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association who wrote an article for the Huffington Post, a seed executive for Monsanto admitted 20 years ago, "If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it."
Cummins says proof of this "skull and crossbones" effect is evident in the European Union, where mandatory labeling, in effect since 1997, has all but driven genetically engineered foods and crops off the market. And he says it's only a matter of time before that happens here in America. More and more states are likely to follow Vermont's lead. Cummins says America's largest food companies, apparently seeing the writing on the wall, already have quietly begun distancing themselves from Monsanto and the genetic engineering lobby.
General Mills, Post Foods, Chipotle, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and others have begun to make changes in their supply chains in order to eliminate GMOs in some or all of their products, he said. Plus, several hundred companies have enrolled in the Non-GMO Project so they can credibly market their products as GMO-free.
Monsanto and the other biotech industry giants may have deep pockets, but the tide of public opinion is increasingly working against them. And we can take pride in the fact that Vermont is helping to lead the charge.