Members of the Vermont House think shoppers should be told which products contain GMOs.
Members of the Vermont House think shoppers should be told which products contain GMOs.
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A historic but cautious attempt to force food manufacturers to label products containing genetically modified ingredients passed the Vermont House by an overwhelming 107-37 vote last week.

If approved by the state Senate and signed by the governor, the bill, H. 112,  would make Vermont the first state in the nation to require labeling of genetically modified foods.

But the measure likely wouldn’t go into effect for two years, and it would not affect meat, milk, or eggs from animals that were fed or treated with genetically engineered substances, including GMO corn and the rBGH cattle hormone.*

From Vermont Public Radio:

No representatives on Thursday argued against the concept of more transparent food labeling. The most frequent point of opposition voiced on the floor concerned a likely lawsuit from the biotech or food industries that the Attorney General’s Office estimates could cost the state more than $5 million.

Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre, reasserted that he thinks the state would lose a lawsuit on constitutional grounds. He said the law runs afoul of the First Amendment by compelling speech, and it could pre-empt federal authority under the constitution’s supremacy clause by enacting a law that the Federal Drug Administration has not.

“Nobody else has passed a similar bill. They all seem to be waiting for Vermont to go first and lead the nation,” he said. “What they mean is they don’t want to risk their taxpayers’ money; they want us to risk Vermonters’ money. That is a $5 million to $10 million risk, and one I am not willing to take.”

A ballot initiative that would have required GMO labels in California was defeated last year after Monsanto and other corporations spent nearly $50 million on ads opposing it. A national GMO-labeling bill was introduced recently in Congress, but it has little to no chance of becoming law.

Most of the corn, soy, and sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, and they’re widely used in processed foods. But shoppers who want to avoid them have no good way of doing so. Requiring food manufacturers to label genetically modified foods would allow people to say “no” to such products.

Big Ag and its supporters resist labeling, likening informational labels to warning stickers on cigarettes and liquor, saying such labels could “alarm” shoppers. Because activists fighting for mandatory labeling often oppose genetic engineering altogether, GMO supporters dismiss their arguments. Take a recent post on the Discover magazine website as an example (the contributor has previously ridiculed GMO-labeling campaigns, but in this post describes himself as ambivalent on the issue):

The “Right to Know” people … say they just want to know what’s in their food. This is a specious argument. The truth is they think there is something harmful about GMOs. Why else would they feel so strongly about labeling genetically modified foods? Yes, the Just Label it Campaign is couched as a consumer rights issue, but really it’s based on fear. Everybody knows this, so pretending otherwise is silly.

That would mean there are a lot of silly people in the world. As the Center for Food Safety points out64 countries including China, Russia, and all European Union nations currently have GMO-labeling laws in place. Vermonters could be the first Americans to join the trend.

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*Correction: Initially this post incorrectly stated that meat and dairy would be exempt from the GMO ban. In fact, the bill would exempt products from animals fed or treated with GMOs, but genetically engineered animals like the AquAdvantage® Salmon would have to be labeled.