Vermont has become the first state in the nation to require food manufacturers to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients.
At a bill signing ceremony on the steps of the state capital, a few hundred supporters cheered Thursday as Gov. Peter Shumlin signed legislation he says will empower Vermont consumers.
"Vermonters have spoken loud and clear, they want to know what’s in their food," Shumlin said. "We are pro-choice. We are pro-information. Vermont gets it right with this bill.”
The majority of the corn, soybeans and canola grown in the United States are genetically engineered, mostly to resist certain pests or herbicides. That means most packaged food sold in this country contains products that were grown with genetic engineering.
Attorney General Bill Sorrell says he doesn't yet know what the label will look like, but he is sure of one thing: "I'll be very surprised if we are not sued," he says, by companies like Monsanto, the world's largest producer of genetically engineered seeds.
Monsanto hasn't commented on Vermont's law yet, but Sorrell says he wouldn't be surprised if there are constitutional claims, claims that the law would compel speech or claims the law poses a burden on interstate commerce.
Many Vermonters say they're worried about potential health risks and just want to know what's in their food.
"There's no requirement that you have to show that these foods are actually harmful to health in order to require a company to disclose that genetic engineering was used," says Laura Murphy, who works in the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Vermont Law School.
But according to Keith Matthews, that isn't a valid argument. Matthews is an attorney who often represents private sector clients in environmental and regulatory matters. He thinks the court would require proof that people were harmed by eating food containing GMOs.
Matthews used to work for the Environmental Protection Agency and ran the unit that registers and regulates genetically engineered crops.
"You've got three federal agencies that engage in rigorous review of these products and determine that there is no risk, that they don't cause any adverse effects in the environmental context when they're being grown," he says. "Nor do they pose any risk to humans when they're consumed."
Debate over the potential risks of genetically engineered food is heated. Most scientists say there's no evidence of harm in eating foods made with genetic engineering.
But anti-GMO advocates say the long-term effects aren't yet known. Some countries have taken a more cautious approach, and Vermont seeks to emulate the European Union, where labeling rules have been in place for more than a decade. U.S. law, however, is different.
Without a change to federal regulations, Vermont's statute is likely to face major challenges. But the state lawmakers who wrote the law say they're ready for that. The legislation includes a $1.5 million legal fund to help cover costs if the state loses in court.
And at the signing ceremony, Shumlin announced the formation of a legal defense fund, called the Food Fight Fund, and asked people from across the country to contribute.