What Vermont’s GMO Law Means for the Labeling Movement

Now that Vermont is the first state in the nation with an active law requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods, attention turns to other Northeast states and the West Coast.

Protesters push for labeling genetically modified foods.
Protesters push for labeling genetically modified foods.
FlickrCC/Kevin Van den Panhuyzen
Last Updated: May 9, 2014

After Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the nation’s first active law requiring the labeling of foods that contain genetically-modified organisms, attention is turning to a host of other states in a movement that is gaining traction across the country but is growing particularly strong in the Northeast. Passing a bill in New York, where the legislature plans to adjourn in mid-June, would give that movement a boost because of the more cautious approach taken toward GMOs in other nearby states. 

“We think there’s enough pressure in New York where we can get this before committee and get a vote,” said Dave Murphy of Food Democracy Now, an activist organization. “Vermont has fundamentally changed the landscape.” 

Vermont may be the first with a law to actually go into effect, but Connecticut and Maine passed laws last year that have “trigger” clauses designed to delay implementation until more states enact labeling requirements of their own. Undeterred by three unsuccessful ballot measures in progressive states, activists continue pressing legislatures in more than 20 states and pushing voter initiatives in another three states this year. 

Genetically modified organisms can be seeds or foods that contain material from bacteria, viruses or other organisms for any number of reasons, from preservation to resisting pesticides. About 90 percent of the nation's sugar beets, soybeans, cotton and corn is genetically-engineered, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Ballot measures have met stiff resistance from farmer bureaus, major agribusiness companies and grocers, who argue there’s no scientific reason for a label that more than 60 other countries require. A number of academic studies have backed them up. The European Union has declared there’s no difference “per se” and some research has predicted higher costs for consumers based on the assumption that manufacturers will switch to more costly ingredients to avoid a label that incites concern. But activists say the issue hasn’t been conclusively studied and there’s no reason that food companies should fear labeling something that bears no health risks.  

Connecticut’s law requires producers to begin labeling foods when four other states pass GMO laws. At least one of those states has to border Connecticut. The population within Connecticut, that bordering state and any other Northeastern states would also have to exceed 20 million under the Connecticut law.  Maine calls for at least four other contiguous states to take action before producers in the state have to begin labeling. 

Massachusetts has incorporated a Connecticut-style trigger clause in its bill, which one legislative committee approved in March. The bill is waiting on another committee vote before it can head to the full House. New Hampshire effectively shelved a bill for a year. On the West Coast, a California Senate bill has gone through several committees and is slated for another May 12. Activists are also pushing ballot measures in Colorado, Arizona and Oregon, where the first effort to label GMOs through a voter initiative failed in 2002. 

New York has bills moving in both chambers, and though the Senate bill is far from “dormant” -- in the words of one aide -- activists have pinned their hopes on the House, which is controlled by Democrats. Similar bills failed to get out of committee last year.

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, the chairman of the Committee on Consumer Affairs and Protection, said he plans to put the bill to a vote in the coming weeks, but he’s not sure of the outcome, despite recent shows of support among some new Democrats on the committee.

“I don’t like to make predictions,” he said. “No Republicans that I’m aware of have indicated any interest in supporting it. The question is among Democrats.”

The bill has a tough road ahead even if it passes out of Consumer Affairs. It might need the approval of up to two other committees before heading to the full Assembly, and the legislature plans to adjourn June 19. The House bill would have to start from scratch next session if the legislature doesn't act.

The New York Farm Bureau has lobbied against the bill, striking similar arguments as opponents in other states. "I see labeling as putting a skull and crossbones on something that shouldn’t have a skull and crossbones, because there’s a false impression of foods that are GMO-grown," said Jeff Williams, the organization's director of public policy. 

The Democrat who sponsored the bill, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, said issues such as medical marijuana and same-sex marriage spent years languishing in committees without so much as a vote. It’s the nature of controversial legislation, she said.

“Last year was the first time this bill actually got on an agenda,” she said. “I was happy that we moved it from the back burner to at least getting it on an agenda. You never know -- in Albany, magic happens sometimes and things get done.”

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.