GMO fight continues in Vermont

VERMONT — As summer heats up and the growing season is in full swing, groups around Vermont are stepping up their activism on an agricultural issue that is stirring up controversy around the state and around the world: genetically modified crops.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have deliberately modified DNA — scientists insert genetic material from other species to create a modified organism with different hormones, proteins or chemicals meant to do anything from repel insects to withstanding certain climates.
In recent weeks, Vermont has emerged as a leader in the fight to allow states to require labeling of GMO food products in both legislative and citizen arenas. Last month, the Vermont House became the first legislative body in the United States to pass legislation that called for mandatory labeling of genetically modified food products. And this past Thursday the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) and ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s announced a summer campaign to ramp up support among citizens in the months leading up to the 2014 legislative session, when the state senate will consider the GMO labeling bill.
“After spending two years working with the Legislature on this issue it has become clear that Vermonters want to see GMO foods labeled, and when they speak with one voice real change can happen,” said VPIRG staff member Falko Schilling. “With the support of everyday Vermonters, we can make history by becoming the first state to label these foods and to let consumers make informed decisions about what they eat and feed their families.”
Vermont’s elected officials appear to share those sentiments.
As a $1 trillion, five-year national Farm Bill was debated in both houses of the U.S. Congress, Vermont’s junior senator, Independent Bernie Sanders, proposed an amendment that would have permitted states to require GMO labeling.
“All over this country, people are becoming more conscious about the foods they are eating and the foods they are serving to their kids and this is certainly true for genetically engineered foods,” Sanders said in a May 22 statement. “I believe that when a mother goes to the store and purchases food for her child, she has the right to know what she is feeding her child.”
The U.S. Senate roundly rejected Sanders’ amendment by a 71-27 vote.
In Vermont, most GMO food products for human consumption are packaged and processed foods, and most of the state’s feed crops grown for animal consumption come from GMO seeds.
Though food labels in the United States are already required to list more than 3,000 ingredients ranging from high fructose corn syrup to trans-fats, the Food and Drug Administration does not require food labels to indicate the presence of GMOs. That sets the United States apart from 49 countries around the world, including all the countries of the European Union.
The agribusinesses that develop GMO seeds and foods have spent millions of dollars lobbying state and national lawmakers. Sanders’ amendment was designed to protect states like Vermont from a costly lawsuit by making clear in federal legislation that requiring GMO labels is within a state government’s rights.
“Vermont and other states must be allowed to label GMO foods,” Sanders said. “My provision would protect states from threatened lawsuits.”
When the Vermont House passed its GMO labeling bill, many legislators signed on with the understanding that the state would likely get sued, as biotech giant Monsanto had promised to do when similar bills were under consideration in recent years.
The bill’s authors kept that promise in mind.
“It’s a bill crafted to withstand a court case,” Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, told the Independent during the session. “That question came up last year and this year.”
While Stevens acknowledged at the time that GMO labeling in Vermont would not do much on its own — food products cross state lines more often than not — there seems to be a growing movement across the country and around the world to have labels and consumer knowledge.
Vermonters seem committed to continuing that movement at home.
“I think Vermont’s leadership right now is incredibly important,” said Orwell farmer Elizabeth Frank, who has attended rallies around the world. “Vermont holds a really special place in terms of being a unique state in our country. People see it as special from the agricultural side, but also in terms of doing the right thing.”
On a cold and rainy May 25, Frank and a handful of other Addison County residents joined scores of protesters in Montpelier who held a march in solidarity with anti-GMO groups around the world in an international “March Against Monsanto” campaign.  VPIRG plans to knock on 30,000 doors this summer to educate the public.
“Our work is far from over yet,” said Leah Marsters, VPIRG assistant canvass director. “Despite already overwhelming public support, we’re up against stiff opposition. Monsanto and other special interests will continue to fight to keep consumers in the dark.”
Frank, who attended the rally in Montpelier, has faith that Vermonters are up to the challenge, at home and in Washington.
“Vermont has a role to play and we are blessed to have forward-thinking senators that aren’t afraid to stand up to these big interest (groups),” she said. 

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