States’ rights to label GMOs could be stolen in Congressional omnibus fight

In 2012, the Vermont legislature began working in earnest on a law to allow Vermonters the right to know if the food they purchased was produced using genetic engineering. Over the next three years, the legislature received testimony from hundreds of people including scientists, lawyers, academics, producers, manufacturers, retailers, advocates and consumers on all sides of the issue. The final bill received overwhelming non-partisan support passing the House on a vote of 114-30 and 28-2 in the Senate. Similar, but distinct from bills passed in Maine and Connecticut, Vermont’s law goes into effect on July 1, 2016 without any triggering clause.  Five weeks after being signed into law, four trade groups brought suit against the state seeking to declare the new law invalid.

In April, the U.S. District Court upheld Vermont’s genetic engineering (GE) law on every count. The plaintiffs appealed and it is now in the Second Circuit with ruling expected soon.  Nonetheless, Vermont continues to push forward toward the effective date.  Rules are in place and producers from around the country are stepping up and working with the state to learn how to be ready with accurate labels. Local affiliates of trade associations, even those suing the state, are helping their members understand and prepare their products for sale in Vermont.  While some are reformulating products so as not to have to label, this is producer choice and not a requirement or the purpose of the law. 

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Current action in Congress, however, puts Vermont’s law, as well as Connecticut’s, Maine’s and all future state GE labeling laws in jeopardy.  The House recently passed a bill prohibiting any current or future state from labeling products produce using GE.  While movement in the Senate remains unclear, efforts are underway to slide an omnibus rider prohibiting state labeling into the appropriations bill. While most of the country will be focused on the far bigger issue of government shutdown tied to this bill, this barely noticeable rider prohibiting this disclosure for all states, just might clog things up or sneak through undetected until it is too late. 

Although the federal government has jurisdiction over the labeling of foods, there has always been room for states to address emerging areas of interest. Whether it is olive oil production in California, catfish in Arkansas or early examples of state bottled water label requirements, states have often lead the way in labeling.

At this time, congressional leaders are focused on defending GE technology, which obscures the real issue.  The real issue is transparency and the ability to make an informed decision about how and where we spend our food dollars based on our values.  Some are concerned about the lack of longitudinal and peer-reviewed studies and unintended health effects, but it is important not to stop there.  It is also about concern for the environmental: the effects of uncontrolled seed (and now fish) trespass on native and organic species, monoculture cultivation practices and an increasing number of seeds owned by corporations rather than “the people.”  It is about respect for religious dietary laws in which undisclosed consumption of GE products may violate various ethical-theological requirements.

In the absence of federal labeling requirements, states such as ours have stepped in to fill that void. Vermont is moving forward. Producers are working on labels. We ask Congress to be thoughtful here, stay focused on the big issues of the federal budget and respect our state’s right to continue in our efforts to provide this disclosure to consumers. It is a right shared by 64 countries and consistent with our American value of transparency and consumer choice. 

Webb has been in office since 2009. She was the lead sponsor of Act 120: An act relating to the labeling of foods produced with genetic engineering.

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