Vermont's Push to Force GMO Labeling Faces Obstacles

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Common Dreams

Vermont's Push to Force GMO Labeling Faces Obstacles

Organic food and consumer advocates make progress, but slow pace worries many

by
Common Dreams staff

Vermont's drive to force food packaging to clearly label whether genetically-modified ingredients are contained in products is making progress in the state legislature, but advocates of the move are disappointed at the slow pace of the pending laws and worry that powerful forces aligned against them, like Monsanto and other large agribusiness firms, will use the delay to consolidate their opposition.

Legislators have heard a drumbeat of support for labeling, according to the Burlington Free Press. Some 300 people turned out for a public hearing before the House Agriculture Committee at the Statehouse earlier this month, where every person who spoke did so in favor of labeling genetically engineered foods.

“We have a right to uncontaminated agriculture in this state,” Peggy Luhrs of Burlington told the committee at the hearing, echoing a common sentiment of uneasiness with the science of genetically engineered seeds. Many noted that 50 other nations require some sort of labeling, reports the Free Press.

Writing in support of the labeling in an op-ed in the Times-Argus, Bondville resident Fred Swchacke wrote today, "It is clear from the turnout of citizens at the Vermont Department of Agriculture hearings on GMO that Vermonters, like Americans in general, are nearly unanimous in their agreement with our European neighbors. They simply want to regain control over the quality of their food and demand it’s accurate labeling. It’s time that our government and the 4th estate line up to support them in the fight against Goliath."

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The Burlington Free Press: GMO Label Movement Faces Hurdles in Vermont

Despite the clamor, labeling appears to be a long ways off in Vermont. Legislation that emerged from the House Agriculture Committee on Friday afternoon comes too late in the legislative session for there to be any hope of it making its way through the full House, the Senate and into law. In addition, the resistance that the legislation ran into highlights the chasm that can exist between the goals of a burgeoning political movement and the pressures legislators face as they seek to fashion laws. [...]

Supporters of labeling also came away unsatisfied, as the bill included a sizable hurdle. Any implementation would be delayed until 365 days after California and at least two Northeastern states enact similar laws. The 9-1 margin was encouraging to labeling supporter Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, but the delay in implementation was a big disappointment, she said.

“They passed a piece of legislation that has its arms and legs tied and eyes and ears covered,” Stander said. “There’s a real concern that if we don’t do something about this soon, there aren’t going to be any GMO-free foods.” [...]

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Times-Argus op-ed by Fred Swchacke: Support GMO Food Labeling 

In a world where corporate giants claim the right to do whatever they see fit to our food supply under the banner of a “free market economy,” over 90 percent of consumers demand that the content of what goes onto their kitchen table be clearly and accurately labeled. The real “Free Market” has spoken with exceptional clarity and the moral choice and responsibility of government is clear.

Monsanto’s use of its massive financial, legal and political clout to destroy all who stand in the way of its efforts to bully Americans into acceptance of their GMO foods in our kitchens is simply unacceptable. In a free country one of our most basic rights is to know what we eat, and one of the government’s most basic responsibilities is to protect our food supply.

In a world where corporate giants claim the right to do whatever they see fit to our food supply under the banner of a “free market economy,” over 90 percent of consumers demand that the content of what goes onto their kitchen table be clearly and accurately labeled. The real “Free Market” has spoken with exceptional clarity and the moral choice and responsibility of government is clear.

Fifteen years or so ago, Monsanto espoused the need for the public to know about their GMO products, and actually promoted them in an advertising campaign in France. Quoting their statements of the time: “You have the right to know what you eat, especially when it’s better … After several months of debate, Europe has just adopted a new law for the labeling of food that comes from genetically engineered plants … We believe that products that come from biotechnology are better and that they should to be labeled.” But that was before the massive consumer backlash that all but killed the market for genetically modified foods in Europe.

It is clear from the turnout of citizens at the Vermont Department of Agriculture hearings on GMO that Vermonters, like Americans in general, are nearly unanimous in their agreement with our European neighbors. They simply want to regain control over the quality of their food and demand it’s accurate labeling. It’s time that our government and the 4th estate line up to support them in the fight against Goliath.

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Burlington Free Press (continued): Big Agribusiness Lawsuit?

The House committee members said they heard clearly from Rachel Lattimore, a Washington lawyer specializing in biotechnology, that they would be facing a lawsuit if the legislation passed.

[Vermont Gov. Peter] Shumlin said he was worried the state would lose that lawsuit. The Attorney General’s Office agrees.

Ryan Kriger, an assistant state attorney general, warned that the GMO bill is very similar to the bovine growth hormone labeling law struck down in 1996.

Kriger said requiring labeling of genetically engineered products could face a challenge on several counts in court. An opponent could argue that states are pre-empted from regulating food products by the FDA, that states are restricted from controlling interstate commerce or that companies’ right to free speech is protected by the First Amendment.

Kriger said courts would require the state to prove it had a valid interest in restricting the speech and that the solution is related to that interest. The court ruled in the milk case that a consumer’s curiosity is not enough, he said.

If the state’s interest is in ensuring food safety, it would run up against the FDA’s declaration that genetically engineered foods are safe, Kriger said.

Supporters of labeling argue that since the 1996 decision, courts have viewed such cases differently. Alaska passed a law requiring the labeling of genetically engineered fish, the Center for Food Safety said in a memo to the House Agriculture Committee that argued a labeling law would be legally defensible. [...]

Numerous speakers at the public hearing told the committee that a court fight would be worthwhile and they are willing to pay for it, accusing Shumlin of being afraid to stand up to Monsanto. The Organics Consumer Association, a national group, even started a legal defense fund for Vermont or any other state that’s sued.

Legislators know that not all Vermonters share the appetite for lawsuits. Conscious of the cost of defending recent drug marketing and Vermont Yankee laws that were shot down in court, lawmakers are wary of creating another.

“I appreciate the sentiment,” said Partridge, the committee chairwoman, “but the reality is I’d like to create a bill that’s really defensible in court.”

Partridge said she thinks her committee has done that. The bill cites a need to protect Vermonters’ health, environment, agricultural diversity and the food market from the increasing use of genetically engineered foods. She also argued that the bill cites legal precedent that allows a state to regulate foods. She noted that there is a push in California for a public vote on the issue this November and legislation brewing in more than a dozen other states.

“I think we put together a very good bill,” Partridge said. ”I think it could provide a model for other states that may be continuing to work on this.”

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