The state Legislature has taken a major step toward changing the way food is labeled in Vermont.
On Thursday, the House approved legislation to require labeling of food that contains genetically modified organisms – or GMOs. Boosted by public support, lawmakers said the benefits of GMO labeling and the right of consumers to know what’s in their food outweighs the risk of a potential lawsuit brought by the dairy and biotech industries. If passed, Vermont would become the first state to require GMO foods to be labeled.
Support for GMO labeling is spreading: More than 60 countries have already enacted labeling laws, and 24 states are considering similar legislation, although none has adopted it.
“It’s something that we continue to hear from consumers about,” said Falko Schilling, a consumer protection advocate with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, pointing to a recent study from the University of Vermont’s Center for Rural Studies that shows 95 percent of people in Vermont support GMO labeling.
“They’re concerned about the health effects of these foods and the environmental impacts that these foods are having in their production,” Schilling said.
The bill, which overwhelmingly advanced on a 107-37 vote, would compel food manufacturers to label food produced through genetic engineering. It would also prohibit the use of the term “natural” on labels.
Critics say if Vermont enacts such a law, it would draw a lawsuit from the biotech and dairy industries, something they say the state can’t afford.
Though it exempts meat and dairy products, the bill still goes too far, says Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven.
“If you look at the labeling and there’s any corn, any canola, any soy ingredients in there, you can be darn sure that there’s a 95 percent chance that you’re buying GMO food,” Smith said.
Smith, a longtime farmer, has recently employed genetic engineering technology on his 300-acre dairy farm in New Haven. He’s worried that labeling his products would indicate there’s something wrong with them, sending a negative message to consumers.
“We’re really making some great gains in our productivity and our ability to reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides, and we’re afraid we’re going to lose our ability to use this new technology,” Smith said during the Republican caucus.
But supporters of labeling say there’s enough scientific evidence that shows the adverse effects of GMOs to give serious pause. Rep. Jon Bartholomew, D-Hartland, urged his colleagues to accept GMO labeling to promote food safety, spur economic development and protect public health.
“Our real debate should be whether our only reasonable course of action is to ban these products entirely until adequate health effects and environmental consequences have been completed,” Bartholomew said. “How many times do we as a species have to introduce new chemicals and products in the name of commerce and promises of better yields only later – when it’s too late – to discover the adverse consequences?”
If given final approval in the House on Friday, the measure would still need to clear the Senate.
“When we passed civil unions, we were told that Vermont would be boycotted and our tourism industry would die,” recalled Judiciary Chairman Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg. “Now we’re told if we pass GE labeling we will face losing our boxes of corn flakes and face empty grocery store shelves. Let us move forward and lead the nation once again.”
In an attempt to dodge a lawsuit, the GMO labeling law would only take effect in 2015 or 18 months after two other states enact similar legislation.