The Senate gave a decisive 26-2 vote Tuesday for a bill that would require labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients, a strong indication that Vermont could become the first state in the nation to enact such a law.
"We are saying people have a right to know what's in their food," said Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Windsor.
Campbell and other supporters argued that they believe they have written a bill that is legally defensible. They nonetheless created a fund in the legislation to help pay the state's legal bills, as many assume that food manufacturers will sue.
The bill would require food sold in Vermont stores that contain genetically modified ingredients to be labeled starting July 2016. The legislation is up for another vote in the Senate Wednesday before it goes back to the House, which passed a slightly different version last year. Gov. Peter Shumlin has indicated he's likely to sign the bill.
Two other states — Connecticut and Maine — have passed labeling laws, but both delayed implementation until neighboring states join them, a strategy designed to insulate them from being sued. Voters in Washington and California defeated labeling measures there.
Supporters said they hoped Vermont would lead the way on the issue. "Vermont's always first," said Will Allen, an organic farmer from Fairlee, citing the state's ban on slavery, passage of civil unions and same-sex marriage as other firsts.
Many foods, including an estimated 88 percent of the corn crop in the United States, contain ingredients that have plants or animals that were genetically modified, typically to increase disease resistance or extend shelf life. Opponents argue that the process may be harmful to humans. Supporters contend there is no evidence of that. Sixty countries, including the European Union, require labeling.
Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, noted as he introduced the bill on the Senate floor Tuesday that questions remain about the safety of the genetically modified foods because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relies on testing done by the food producers rather than independent sources.
Sens. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, and Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, were the only votes of dissent Tuesday.
Flory, a lawyer, noted that Attorney General Bill Sorrell has said the state is likely to be sued. Senate Judiciary Committe ChairmanRichard Sears, D-Bennington, conceded under questioning from Flory that if Vermont loses the case, as it did with a similar law that sought to require labeling of milk containing bovine growth hormones, the legal bills are estimated to be as high as $8 million.
McAllister, a farmer, argued that labeling will do nothing but mislead consumers into believing there must be something bad about GMOs, which he believes is untrue. "This labeling bill will not tell them anything other than 'GMO something'," McAllister said. "This does noteducate them about what they're eating. The nutritional value is exactly the same."
Some senators who had been skeptical of GMO labeling said they were persuaded that their constituents want the information clarified on the food they buy. Senators said they were flooded with emails and calls from people urging them to pass the bill.
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said he came to view labeling of GMOs as akin to the label that tells him how many carbohydrates are in a bottle of tea. That label gives him information without declaring that carbohydrates are evil, he said. "I know what carbohydrates can do to my body," he said. "Some people in this room that's exactly how they feel about GMOs."
Under the bill, Benning said, the wording declaring that a product contains GMOs could be as small as the carbohydrate listing typically found on food packages.
Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, chairman of the SenateAgriculture Committee, said he, too, had been unenthusiastic about GMO labeling, but at every public meeting he heard from Vermonters who wanted a labeling law. "Lo and behold, GMOs would float to the top of the debate within those meetings," he said.