By Burlington Free Press
Standing on the Statehouse steps before a legion of activists, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law a bill Thursday that could make Vermont the first state to require genetically modified foods to be labeled — and the first state to be sued over it.
“Today, we are the first state in America that says simply, ‘Vermonters have spoken loud and clear. We want to know what’s in our food,'” Shumlin said, comparing the issue to other laws that were first in the nation, banning slavery and allowing same-sex marriage. “We are pro-choice. We are pro-information.”
Even as Shumlin and some 300 supporters of the law celebrated, the governor announced a website — www.foodfightfundvt.org — where he encouraged people to donate to help pay legal expenses in case the law is challenged. “We will win the food fight,” Shumlin said.
The national Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) called the law “legally suspect” in a statement released Thursday. The statement also said, “In the coming weeks GMA will file suit in federal court against the state of Vermont to overturn the law.”
The group argues that GMOs are safe and that consumers seeking to avoid them may choose certified organic foods, which are GMO-free.
State Attorney General Bill Sorrell said Thursday that he has no doubt the law will be challenged but that he will defend the state. The state has lost a previous challenge to a milk-labeling law but won challenge of a mercury-labeling law.
For supporters, who consider GMOs a potential health and environmental threat, Thursday’s bill-signing was a festive celebration with music and ice cream on the Statehouse steps.
Brigid Armbrust, an 11-year-old from West Hartford, was among the youngest supporters of the cause, having launched her own letter campaign to persuade legislators to pass the law. Brigid was among the activists that Shumlin invited to the microphone Thursday.
Brigid thanked lawmakers for “doing the right thing.” She told the story of a wise monk whose advice “always do good things, never do bad things,” was questioned as overly simplistic until he added, “The 3-year-old knows it, but the 80-year-old finds it very hard to do.”
The new law requires most food sold in Vermont that contains genetically modified organisms to be labeled as of July 1, 2016, a date intended to give Sorrell’s office time to work out the details of labeling. No other states have such laws in effect, but 64 countries require labeling and Connecticut and Maine have laws that would take effect if neighboring states join in. Crops such as corn and soy are commonly grown with genetically modified seeds that manufacturers tout as resistant to pesticides.
Ben & Jerry’s Chief Executive Officer Jostein Solheim came to celebrate Thursday’s bill-signing with a truck full of free ice cream. The Cherry Garcia and Milk & Cookies being given out were GMO-free, he said. Not all of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is GMO-free because of the candy and other added ingredients, but Solheim said the company is making all new products without GMO ingredients and is seeking non-GMO ingredients.
Sourcing non-GMO products has been tricky, Solheim said. “If we can do it with the complexity of our portfolio … anybody who sets their mind to it can do it,” Solheim said. “Our goal is to play a part in developing a non-GMO supply chain.”
Ice cream on its own is considered GMO-free even if the cows eat genetically modified corn.
Activists around the country also joined in celebrating Vermont’s law. “It’s a historic moment,” said Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., who came to Vermont for the bill signing. “Vermont is in many ways a beacon of hope for the labeling movement.”
O’Neil’s organization helped Vermont legislators write the bill. He argued that the law will survive legal challenge, particularly by noting within the law that the state has an interest in giving consumers information. He said his group would help Vermont mount with its legal defense.
Critics, meanwhile, characterized the law as “irresponsible,” based on scare tactics, costly and legally dicey.
“Economic studies have shown that such a program could needlessly increase food costs on the average household by as much as $400 a year,” said Cathleen Enright, executive vice president for food and agriculture with the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
“These advocates willfully overlook the fact that GM foods have been principally responsible for increasing abundance and reducing the overall price of food,” said Val Giddings, senior fellow with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which supports genetically modified organisms.
Shumlin used three pens to sign his name to the law, giving one to Brigid. The other two went to Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, an organic farmer who has advocated for decades for a distinction between GMO and non-GMO food production and the third to Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee that started the bill.