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The Trigger Trap: Will Vermont Lawmakers Let Industry Strangle Another GMO Labeling Law?

From spending millions to defeat ballot initiatives, to floating a voluntary federal labeling “solution,” to threatening to sue any state, including Vermont, if it passes a GMO labeling law, the biotech and junk food industries are determined to keep labels off of foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

One of their strategies designed to thwart state GMO labeling laws involves convincing normally progressive state lawmakers to add a “trigger” clause to their state bills. A trigger adds an additional condition to a bill, a condition that must be met before the law can be enacted. The trigger clause appeals to state lawmakers who want to shield their states from the financial burden of millions of dollars in legal costs, should industry follow through on threats to sue.

The trigger strategy has been employed successfully so far in Maine and Connecticut. Will Vermont be the next to fall into the trigger trap? Or will Vermont senators and the Governor stand up for their constituents by standing up to industry?

In 2013, Connecticut and Maine passed GMO labeling bills. Both those laws are in limbo, where they will remain until four neighboring states with a combined population of 20 million inhabitants pass similar labeling bills. Connecticut and Maine lawmakers justified the triggers as a strategy to spread out the legal liability in the event of industry lawsuits.

But industry activists, who thought they’d won the labeling battle only to realize they’d gained only a pyrrhic victory, are frustrated. In Vermont, where more than 90 percent of the citizens are in favor of a mandatory GMO labeling law, activists hope their lawmakers will take the lead, by passing the first clean, trigger-less GMO labeling law.

Vermont’s H.112 Can Withstand Legal Challenge

Legal scholars and the Vermont Attorney General’s office have determined that H.112 is well-researched, well-written and fully defensible in court.

Of course, industry has told every lie in the book, and pulled every trick out of its hat, to convince state lawmakers otherwise. Just as they lied to voters in California and Washington State, where GMO labeling initiatives were narrowly defeated, representatives from the Biotechnology Industry Organization testified in Vermont that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) had performed health and safety tests on GMO crops, and found them to be safe.

That testimony was refuted by Michael Hansen, senior scientist at the Consumers Union, who stated that the FDA has never performed health or safety testing on any GMO crop. In fact, the only tests performed on GMO crops, for human food and animal feed, were those done by biotech companies or researchers working under contract for those companies. Neither the U.S. government nor independent researchers have been permitted to conduct the long-term multi-generational feeding studies that are usually required before a new product is released. Why? Because GMO seed manufacturers won’t release their proprietary seeds for testing.

In fact, the only thing most U.S. consumers know about the safety or danger of these products is what the genetic manipulators tell us.

Of course the genetic engineers have told us, and will continue to tell us that their products are safe—just like the tobacco corporations assured us for decades that their products were safe.

But consumers are wising up, thanks to the work of brave researchers in Europe and Asia who have risked their careers to conduct short and long-term studies of GMO food and animal feed. The results of these independent tests, and the widespread use of the precautionary principle, prompted 64 countries—but not the U.S.—to label GMO products to protect their citizens.

Time to Apply the ‘Precautionary Principle’ to GMOs

The precautionary principle holds that when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships have not yet been fully established scientifically.

In the past, by refusing to employ the precautionary principle, the FDA allowed the release of arsenic, DDT, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, and enumerable agricultural toxins into the marketplace. Humans, birds, amphibians, and the environment have all suffered from the FDA’s and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) refusal to adopt the precautionary principle or adequately test these products.

When it comes to our food, shouldn’t we take every precaution to avoid releasing products that haven’t been adequately tested for health and safety, into the marketplace?

And yet, we don’t. In the case of GMOs, the precautionary principle comes into play because preliminary results from independent researchers in the European Union and Asia found kidney and liver tumors, and intestinal abnormalities. In spite of these findings, the corporations making the products have consistently refused to let government and independent U.S. researchers conduct trials of their products.

In the U.S., the precautionary principle is rejected by corporations and government regulators who employ much more corporate-friendly “standards.” Those “standards,” known as quantitative risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses, are more like sliding scales than standards. This system determines that certain chemically produced substances make some people sick and kill other victims. This risk of illness and death is contrasted with the benefits to farmers and the food supply. In this risk-benefit system, the death of a certain number of people is evaluated as an acceptable risk in order to get the benefit of more food or animal feed by using toxic pesticides, fertilizers or GMOs.

If a pesticide causes cancer in laboratory animals, the EPA makes the calculation and the tolerance is set so that the estimated exposure will be less than the amount calculated to cause one extra cancer case per million people. This is the level that EPA calls a "negligible risk." The EPA is not interpreting this standard strictly; however, estimated cancer risks that are almost double that level are frequently acceptable. Economic benefits have been used to justify cancer risks that are up to 10 times higher. Instead of standards, critics accuse the U.S. of employing “risk roulette.”

Consumers Want Real Laws, not ‘Triggers’

Opinion polls have shown repeatedly that consumers want GMOs labeled.  As the struggle over labeling is waged, in one form or another, in at least 26 states, the trigger becomes one of the biotech and food industry’s most effective tools.

But consumers know what the trigger strategy really is—just another way to put off the day when we have the right to know what is in our food. It is intended to protect state funds. But it’s really just another way for state legislators to avoid direct confrontation with corporate bullies.

Isn’t it time lawmakers stand up for their constituents, and stand up to industry? Let Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers sue. Let’s all encourage Vermont to take the lead, and pass a clean, trigger-less law. If you live outside Vermont, please visit to see how you can help. If you’re a Vermonter, please contact your state lawmaker today and ask him or her to support H.112.

Will Allen

Will Allen is an organic farmer in Vermont, a community organizer, anti-war activist, and occasional author. His book, The War on Bugs was published by Chelsea Green in 2008. He is a policy advisory board member of the Organic Consumers Association, and a board member of Willing Hands (a local Vermont food bank). You can reach him at: or visit his farm's website -- Cedar Circle Farm.

Kate Duesterberg

Kate Duesterberg is an organic farmer and an organic agriculture and anti-war activist. You can view the website of Cedar Circle Farm -- the organic farm that she co-manages with Will Allen and Luke Jonis.

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