GMO bill passes committee, but won’t reach house floor

MONTPELIER — A bill that would require labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in foods passed out of the Vermont House Agriculture Committee last Friday, with nine representatives voting for and one against.
Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, said H. 722 will likely pass through the House Judiciary Committee, but it’s not likely to reach the House floor before the end of this legislative session. Stevens said to reach the floor similar legislation would have to start from the very beginning next year.
But the committee has taken extensive testimony on the topic of GMO labeling this session, and Stevens said that’s illuminated one clear point: consumers want to know what is in their food.
Jane Kolodinsky, UVM professor and co-director of the Center for Rural Studies, said it’s important to make the distinction that the discussion at hand is not about the relative merit of GMO crops, but rather about the consumer’s right to know.
“The bottom line is that it really is a consumer information issue,” said Kolodinsky. “Consumers vote with their dollars, and we really believe that there should be enough information for them to do that.”
According to Center for Rural Studies polls, more than 95 percent of Vermonters supported GMO labeling as of 2008, and Kolodinsky said that number has stayed unchanged over 12 years of polling.
Jan Louise Ball of Addison was one of several hundred people who attended a public hearing on the GMO labeling bill in Montpelier on April 12. She said nearly everyone there spoke in favor of the labeling law. Ball said she attended because she is a beekeeper, and she cited speculation that GMOs could contribute to a recent worldwide bee die-off.
“I believe this is just the first step in citizens having the right to choose,” she said of the bill. “Corporate conglomerates are not being honest with the farmers or anybody.”
Matthew Ennis of Lincoln has also been active in motivating people to testify. He worked with Rural Vermont on a town-by-town campaign in the early 2000s that pushed to institute moratoriums on planting GMO seeds, but he said that the momentum is growing now to do something in the legislature.
“This has been a long time coming,” he said.
Ennis said he saw GMO labeling advocates both old and new at the Statehouse this time around, and that there were many high school and college students who turned out to testify at the public hearing.
“It tells me that there’s a lot of support for GMO labeling,” said Ennis.
The bill would exempt animal products from labeling where the animal has eaten GMO crops, as well as any products that contain GMO organisms without the knowledge of the producer.
Both Gov. Peter Shumlin and Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross have expressed concern that, if passed, the state would be subject to substantial legal charges. The bill as passed out of the House Agriculture Committee contains a clause that would prevent labeling provisions from taking effect until a year after California and at least two Northeastern states have put their own laws into place.
Some proponents of GMO labeling say the matter is a non-issue, since the organic label already ensures that a product does not contain GMOs.
But Kolodinsky said not everybody is willing — or able — to pay the expense of everything that comes with that assurance.
“Organic represents a whole series of production methods that goes beyond GMO-free,” said Kolodinsky. “The consumer must then pay for the whole package.”
The agriculture committee also heard testimony from the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), an advocacy organization for member companies researching and developing healthcare, agricultural, industrial and environmental biotechnology products.
Brian O’Connor, manager of state government relations for BIO, said the bill was a solution in search of a problem, noting that genetically modified seeds are seen as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.
“Requiring the labeling of biotechnology-derived foods, which are indistinguishable from foods produced through non-biotech methods, serves no purpose other than to mislead consumers by falsely implying differences where none exist,” said O’Connor.
He pointed out that there is no scientific evidence that GMO crops differ from conventional crops.
“Food labeling requirements should be and always have been science-based in order to provide consumers with meaningful information about the foods they buy,” O’Connor said.
Kolodinsky said consumers don’t simply look for labeling concerning health on their foods: dolphin-safe tuna labeling, for example, instead pertains to the production methods.
The difficulty, she said, comes when transferring from voluntary labeling to mandatory, especially when putting in place labeling certifications that will cost farmers more money.
“You can say that consumers have the right to know, but the devil is in the details,” she said. “The concern is on how you develop a fair and equitable law.”
Though GMO labeling laws are being discussed in several states across the country — a group of Californians are pushing to put a labeling measure on state ballots for November — Stevens said ideally this wouldn’t be a discussion for state governments.
“The most efficient thing to do would be for the feds to act,” he said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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