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States Brace for Monsanto's 'Big Stick' in GMO Labeling Fight

As New England states back new legislation, labeling supporters prepare for Big Biotech's legal assault

Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Grassroots groups across the United States are mobilizing against the nation's powerful biotech firms as a new round of labeling laws for foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) make their way through state legislatures. 

The front lines in this battle have shifted to two New England states where legislators are preparing to vote on GMO labeling laws while backers prepare for a legal assault by large industry firms like Monsanto.

"The biotech [industry] is seeing growing mass support across the US and they have fewer useful resources to combat truthfulness and popular support," said Jim Gerritsen, president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), in an interview with Common Dreams. "Their 'big stick' now is litigation." 

Biotech firms, including Monsanto and other 'Big Ag' industry groups, were behind the defeat of an earlier labeling initiative, California's Proposition 37, after bankrolling a widespread misinformation campaign.

Gerritsen's statement came on the heels of a small victory in Maine Tuesday night when the Legislature's Agriculture Committee voted 8-5 to approve Bill L.D. 718 which would prohibit retailers from labeling a product “natural” if it contains GMOs.

“Somebody once said that Monsanto isn’t a seed company, it’s a law firm that makes seeds.” - Maine Rep. Lance Harvell

The vote followed the Friday passage of Bill H.112 by the Vermont House of Representatives which requires foods containing GMOs to be labeled, marking the "furthest any such legislation has made it through the legislative process in the United States," according to PR Watch.

The New England states are just two of a coalition of thirty-seven states currently mobilizing for GMO labeling. Of these, twenty now have legislation slated for introduction this year.

A local paper reports that one third of Vermont’s legislators were co-sponsors, "signaling the bill’s broad public support." Similarly, according to Gerritsen, an astounding 91 percent of Mainers favor the labeling of genetically modified foods.

"Both Vermont and Maine are not going to be bullied by out-of-state biotech firms," added Gerritsen. "It's an outrageous abuse of the democratic process. For out-of-state trade groups to threaten a state acting in the best interest of its people, that is abuse."

According to the Kennebec Journal, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills—who supports the measure—told lawmakers that the legislation is “almost certain” to face a legal challenge from the industry.  “These entities are very litigious,” Mills told the committee.

Maine Representative Lance Harvell (R-Farmington), who sponsored the bill, added, “You’re challenging a biotech industry that’s operated on the basis of throwing their weight around,” he said. “Somebody once said that Monsanto isn’t a seed company, it’s a law firm that makes seeds.”

Monsanto has already threatened to sue Vermont if the legislation passes.

Gerritsen believes the state is in "excellent position" to combat any legal challenges. What they are promoting is "factual, uncontroversial information which is valid for state interest."

He quotes a recent statistic that 50 percent of American consumers would not purchase foods made with GMOs if they knew about their presence. Not sharing that information, he says, indicates a "level of deceit" on the part of food companies. 

As the Maine bill progresses, supporters are "very hopeful" they will receive passage in both the House—where a record 123 legislators (out of 186) are cosponsoring the bill—and Senate.

In Vermont, the Senate vote won't occur until the legislature convenes next January.


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