Sending a message

Wednesday July 10, 2013

Proponents of GMO (genetically-modified organisms) labeling lost a key battle earlier this year when the U.S. Senate rejected an amendment which would have allowed states to require labels on food or beverages made with genetically modified ingredients.

Regardless, the Vermont house had already passed legislation to mandate GMO labeling. (It should be noted that the Vermont Senate took no action before the 2013 legislative session ended, but senators are expected to consider the bill next year.)

If, next year, the bill passed the Senate, and was signed into law by Gov. Shumlin, Vermont would become the first state to mandate GMO labeling (and would surely lead to test cases for anyone in the bio-technology or food industries who wishes to challenge such a law by claiming that food labeling must be left to federal regulators).

Without federal protection for the states, such legal challenges are pretty much guaranteed from an industry with very deep pockets. As the Reformer editorial board noted earlier this year, the war over GMO labeling is being waged on many fronts -- federal, state and even at the grassroots level.

Nearly half of the nation’s state legislatures have introduced bills to require manufacturers to label foods containing genetically modified or genetically engineered products. In addition to Vermont, other states include Washington, Oregon, Connecticut and Maine.

On the grassroots level, look no further than the effort currently under way by 60 members of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group’s citizen outreach team. The group of mostly college-aged students has been tasked with knocking on more than 80,000 doors this year in an effort to drum up support for the state’s GMO bill. (Remarkably, organizers claim to have already reached 58,000 of those doors. How’s that for hard work and effort?)

In Windham County this week, some of those team members were at the Brattleboro Co-op Tuesday morning, educating local shoppers to the concerns associated with GMO labeling.

"What better way to spend our summer than to be working on things we really care about?" Putney native Cordelia Fuller told the Reformer.

State Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, is a supporter of the bill, and was also on hand, Tuesday. He admitted pushing through the GMO bill and enforcing it would be an "uphill battle," but believes Vermont’s bill could withstand any legal opposition.

"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."

Luckily, support for Vermont extends into Washington, D.C., where Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has been a loud proponent of GMO labeling.

"Vermont and other states must be allowed to label GMO foods," Sanders told the Reformer earlier this year. During a later appearance on CNN, Sanders said he didn’t want to see states like Vermont "sued in a multimillion-dollar suit by a very powerful, wealthy corporation who says, ‘Well, you don’t have the right to do it. It is a federal prerogative.’"

Forget the fact that at least 64 countries around the world have already enacted restrictions or bans on the production and sale of GMOs. These labels, much like the ones already in place on packaging and in restaurants detailing nutritional values, aren’t meant to be guidelines. They would simply state a fact.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: In the end this boils down to an educational issue. People want to know what they’re putting in their bodies. And if, because of ignorance, there is no concern, then we applaud the ongoing efforts of VPIRG to educate the masses.


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