At a recent meeting of the Rutland Chamber of Commerce, Gov. PeterShumlin restated his longstanding support for labeling genetically engineered foods. It is currently estimated that 75 percent of processed foods on Vermont’s store shelves are produced with GE ingredients.
And yet, the governor, once again, voiced his concerns about H.112, a bill that would require food manufacturers to label GE food products sold in Vermont. The governor is worried that biotechnology corporations will follow through on their public threat to sue Vermont in federal court if it passes GE labeling legislation.
In fact, the evidence in support of mandatory labeling of GE foods is far stronger today than it was in 1994 when a Vermont law requiring labeling of milk products from cows treated with a genetically engineered bovine growth hormone was challenged by food industry corporations and overturned by the court.
The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee recently concluded weeks of hard work in evaluating evidence and facts pertaining to H.112. The committee heard wide-ranging testimony from legal experts, scientists, farmers, state and federal officials, and diverse industry and public interest organizations. It reviewed legal briefs, scientific studies and federal regulations.
On March 1, at the conclusion of its work, the committee voted 8-3 to pass H.112. It found that the risks posed by GE products to human health and to the environment are poorly understood and poorly regulated. In its findings, the committee concluded that “the State should require food produced with genetic engineering to be labeled as such in order to serve the interests of the State … to prevent inadvertent consumer deception, prevent potential risks to human health, promote food safety, protect cultural and religious practices, protect the environment, and promote economic development.”
We urge the governor and others to read H.112 and carefully consider the committee’s full set of findings before they judge the legal merits and ethical aspects of this labeling legislation.
At the meeting in Rutland, a member of the chamber voiced opposition to H.112 because the sales of products made by Vermont food producers who use GE ingredients may be harmed. This is a concern that has been raised by others, including some in the governor’s administration.
The committee considered these concerns and heard testimony from a number of Vermont food manufacturers — some expressed opposition and others supported the legislation. It looked into the availability of non-GE alternative ingredients that manufacturers who use GE components might wish to use in their products, as well as opportunities for Vermont’s farmers to produce non-GE products to meet increased market demand.
The committee found that a UVM poll reported that an overwhelming majority of Vermonters want GE foods labeled. National polls of consumers have shown similar levels of support. Not surprisingly, consumers have not been content to wait for federal or state action to require labeling of GE foods offered for sale. Recent industry-funded surveys of natural foods consumers show that sales of non-GE foods are expanding rapidly and that over half of these consumers plan to increase their purchases of non-GE foods in the future. Many, if not most, specialty foods manufacturers in Vermont and elsewhere market their products in food co-ops and natural foods retail outlets.
In its findings the committee also concluded that: “Requiring that foods produced through genetic engineering be labeled as such will create additional market opportunities for those producers … whose products are not produced from genetic engineering. Such additional market opportunities will also contribute to vibrant and diversified agricultural communities.”
The food marketplace is clearly changing. Those food producers who anticipate and respond to these changes will be well-positioned to gain new customers — both in Vermont and elsewhere. This is why Ben & Jerry’s and Lake Champlain Chocolates are now transitioning their products to be free of GE ingredients.
Other companies may, or may not, choose to do likewise. (Ben & Jerry’s will soon announce workshops for Vermont food producers who are interested in learning more about how to make this transition.)
The state of Vermont has the opportunity, once again, to lead the nation in addressing an important problem that affects the daily lives of its citizens. Enactment of GE labeling legislation will not only be good for Vermont, it is also the right thing to do.
Dave Rogers is a policy adviser for NOFA Vermont; Andrea Stander is executive director of Rural Vermont; and Falko Schilling is a consumer protection advocate at VPIRG. They are part of the Vermont Right To Know GMO’s Coalition.MORE IN Commentary
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