‘All eyes are on Vermont’

Canvassers gather in Brattleboro to kick campaign to require labeling of food containing GMOs

BRATTLEBORO — In May, the Vermont House voted 99-42 in favor of what would have been the nation's first GMO labeling bill.

H.112 would require labeling products sold within the state that are produced with or contain genetically modified ingredients. The bill exempts labeling animal products regardless of whether animals were fed or treated with GMOs.

The Senate version of the bill, S.89, is expected to be taken up in January when the Legislature returns to the Statehouse, and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) says it wants to keep the momentum going.

On July 9, 60 young canvassers hired by VPIRG held a kick-off rally at the Brattleboro Food Co-op.

Melanie Katz, VPIRG campaign coordinator and canvasser, says that the main goal is to spread awareness and send a clear message to Vermont's senators. The campaign, called VT Right to Know GMOs, is a collaboration of Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), Rural Vermont, and VPIRG.

“We all have a right to know what's in our food,” said Katz. “All eyes are on Vermont to be the first GMO labeling bill in the country.”

Canvassers have already gathered 15,000 “petition postcards” from the canvassing campaign across the state, which will be delivered to senators by August. Katz hopes to have the canvassers reach every town in Windham County in the coming weeks.

Canvasser and Putney resident Cordelia Fuller spoke about her motivation for being part of the campaign.

“It's a wonderful opportunity to talk to friends and neighbors,” Fuller said. “We make people's voices heard.”

“This is a hard job,” Fuller added. “But no one is here for a weekly paycheck. We wouldn't do it if we didn't love it.”

State Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, spoke at the event as a member of the Agriculture Committee and co-sponsor of the bill.

In an interview after the rally, Toleno said he believes the bill helps to “build culture change that happens in the marketplace.”

As a member of the committee, Toleno said he has heard testimony from a variety of Vermonters, including from specialty food producers. Of those who gave testimony, “some see opportunity and others see risk.”

To understand and evaluate the risk is important, said Toleno. But he believes Vermont is ready to “accept that that risk,” though he said he believes that the Senate is likely to be “hung up on that potential. ”

Toleno acknowledges the threat of lawsuits from biotech companies or corporations.

“People are concerned about Vermont going first,” said Toleno. “But it's not something to worry about.”

State Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chair of the Agriculture Committee, and echoes Toleno's view that Vermonters overwhelmingly support a measure to label GMOs.

Referring to a poll taken by the University of Vermont's Center for Rural Studies in 2002 - a decade before the bill was taken up - 96 percent of Vermonters surveyed said they believed in labeling GMO food. Partridge said by taking up the bill, “We were responding to Vermonter's desire to have food labels.”

Vermonters' concerns, said Partridge, were not just motivated by “public curiosity,” but included concerns for health and agriculture.

In response to the threat of lawsuits, Partridge said, “I put a lot of faith in our legislative council. Their feeling was that this bill would withstand a court challenge.”

Partridge is concerned about small Vermont businesses, their ability to label products, and the potential “hassle” of providing two different labels for in- and out-of-state sales.

“We don't necessarily want our companies having to send packaging out where labels are not required. It would require two different packaging lines. I am very conscious of that,” said Partridge. “This is something to be done on a federal level, but I'm not holding my breath.”

But, says Partridge, there are a surprising number of Vermont companies pursuing product reformulations to be GMO free, including Ben and Jerry's and Lake Champlain Chocolates.

“It's a reasonable bill. We believe we have done our best effort to reflect what Vermont wants,” said Toleno. “The judicial system will assess our efforts.”

The bill itself constitutes “limitation of commercial speech,” Toleno said. He adds that “wherever commercial speech is limited, there is a substantial state interest.”

Toleno shared that he was personally surprised by the amount of “genuine passion” Vermonters conveyed in the matter. He urged citizens that it is necessary to continue to communicate support for the bill and share with senators that “the polls are accurate.”

He cites Farm to Plate, a 2009 legislative initiative to boost employment and support local food production and sales, which was supported by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and various Vermonters around the state, as an example of Vermonters themselves motivating legislative change.

According to Toleno, Farm to Plate drove the change in the Legislature through the work of the local food community and grassroots support.

“We've found as a committee that we had an opportunity to try not to force change but to embrace change,” said Toleno. “We are at our best when citizens are leading us and provide what they want instead of us trying to force things upon them.”

“The bill does not assert how GMOs are harmful,” Toleno said. But he added that the independent science that the committee referenced regarding the safety of GMOs has “raised red flags.”

There are one of two dates contained in the bill, said Partridge, that dictate when this bill would become effective. The bill would be effective either 18 months after two other states enact similar legislation, or on July 1, 2015, whichever comes first.

“The bill must be sustainably comparable,” said Partridge.

Several surrounding states, including Connecticut, have passed legislation to require that foods carry a genetic modification label. Connecticut, which passed the bill in June, contains a similar provision that neighboring states must also pass GMO labeling legislation before the bill will go into effect.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has said that he is prepared to sign the bill when it reaches his desk.

“I am feeling very positively about the bill,” Partridge said.

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