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Vermont Passes a GMO-Label Law. How Did They Do It?

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My husband is a New Englander from the Boston area, and over the years we have been together, I have learned a few things about this breed of American: When they want to get something done, they get it done.

California and Washington state couldn't get it done. Connecticut has contingencies linked to their law that will inhibit, if not prevent it from going into effect. But tiny Vermont stood up to the giants of the bio-tech industry and won the day.

How?

According to The Burlington Free Press, the answer is simpler than we might want to think. Sure, there was hard work done by the people, grassroots organizations who spoke loudly and clearly about their right to know what is in their food. But in the end, it came down to this: Senator Bobby Starr and his colleagues were bombarded by phone calls, postcards, letters and emails urging them to pass the bill.

"What it came down to is the people I represent wanted it," said Starr, a Democrat who represents relatively conservative Essex and Orleans counties. "In the end I said, 'Well, individual rights are more important than an industry's rights."

It came down to representatives deciding to do the will of the people rather than the will of industry and business.

The senator admits he had given little thought to GMOs before this bill, but his people -- the people for whom he works -- said they wanted this, and he did the work and made it happen... for his people. It's how democracy is supposed to work.

The Vermont legislature has passed this bill despite the threat of a lawsuit hanging over their heads by -- you guessed it -- the food manufacturers lobby, the handmaiden of the bio-tech industry. They passed it due to a well-organized, well-funded, well-informed bunch of activists who launched one of the biggest grassroots efforts the state had ever seen. They did it without scare tactics and hysterics. They did it through persistent unrelenting work, use of social media to get the word out (it can be useful after all, not just a hellscape of "selfies")... and more than two decades of experience resisting GMO's in agriculture in Vermont. There is nothing more formidable than a well-educated activist.

In 2004, after years of opposition to GM crops, Vermont lawmakers passed the first law in the nation requiring the labeling of GMO seeds. Sadly, that law was never enforced but it did pave the way for the victory we have just seen.

This victory is especially sweet considering a label law failed to pass in 2011. A more refined version of the law has passed opening the door for other states to do similar work.

But there is a big "if" attached to this idea.

Vermont's lawmakers stood up for their constituency. They did what they were sent to the legislature to do: Represent the will of the people, not set the people aside in favor of the oily lobbyists who lurk in the hallways of every senate house working to corrupt the system, pervert democracy and serve only the will of those who pay them.

If other lawmakers across the nation listen to their constituents, these label laws would be no-brainers. According to a New York Times poll, 93 percent of Americans favor labeling; they favor the idea that we have a right to know what's in our food. We have the right to choose what we eat.

Other lawmakers would do well to follow the example set in Vermont, where the legislators understand that it's not their own agenda that they serve -- not the agenda of big business, but the agenda of the people who sent them to work in state government.

In the end, it's an uphill battle. GMOs are firmly entrenched in the ingredients in our processed food. Bio-tech lobby groups wield tremendous power in both state and federal governments and they will fight our right to know until the bitter end.

The biggest problem they face is that they are up against Americans, the people born of a country founded on impossible revolution. We are people fully aware of our rights; the overwhelming majority of us believe we have the right to know what's in our food.

The bio-tech industry would like you to believe that they are the victims here -- that the mean hippie activists for natural foods scared people about GMOs. They are crying foul and saying we are being misled by the agenda of... well, who exactly? Mother Nature?

Those in the bio-tech industry who create transgenic seeds and foods argue they are safe. The USDA concurs. But isn't it funny that the only studies done on the safety of GMOs was done by the bio-tech industry itself? Doesn't that smell a little fishy to you?

But back to Vermont. Here is where the genius of their new law lies. In the bill, legislators cite this very controversy about the safety of GMOs as the reason to offer consumer labels. The bill states:

There is a lack of consensus regarding the validity of the research and science surrounding the safety of genetically-engineered foods, as indicated by the fact that there are peer-reviewed studies published in international scientific literature showing negative, neutral and positive health results.

Throughout Vermont's process with this bill, opponents of labeling laws were uncharacteristically quiet. In California, New Hampshire and Washington State, they spent millions of dollars to defeat similar laws. The sizeable lobbying efforts resulted in the defeat by voters of the law in all three states.

"We weren't able to get traction," said Karen Batra, communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which instead supports pending federal legislation that would require labeling of GMO foods nationally if the FDA determines there is a health or safety risk. "We had the numbers against us in the Legislature. It was a priority with Democrats."

I guess when all else fails, blame the Democrats.

One theory floating around the activist community is that they plan to fight the law in court, which would prove an expensive and disheartening end to this crystal clear example of democracy in action.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association stated in response to the rumors about a lawsuit, "As we continue to evaluate the impacts of HB 112, we will make a determination about whether litigation is the appropriate response to this misguided legislation."

The GMA argues, as does the entire bio-tech industry, that GM crops use less water, fewer pesticides, help reduce crop prices and produce more nutritious food. They say that opponents of GMOs can simply choose organic options already in the marketplace if they don't want GMOs in their food. They say that government (and activist groups) has no compelling interest in warning consumers about foods containing GM ingredients.

Wait a minute. How is labeling a product as containing GMOs considered a warning?

If I am looking at a product and I want to purchase a salt-free version, does the label that reads "no sodium added" serve as a warning against sodium? It's silly semantics they are all playing in order to keep pulling the wool over the consumers eyes.

Food manufacturers would have you believe that this law will create uncertainty for food producers as they discover how and what has to be labeled. How will they prove ingredients are GM-free? Once again, they play the victim rather than tell the truth: Using compromised GM ingredients is cheap and easy, and they do not want to do the right thing by the consumer and the planet.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin is expected to sign the bill sometime this month, making his state the first to require food manufacturers to label products that contain genetically modified organisms. Here's a look at some of the details:

Labeling would begin in Vermont on July 1, 2016, after the Attorney General's Office finalizes specifics.

There are three wording options offered in the bill to describe GM ingredients (subject to modifications by the Attorney General's Office): "partially produced with genetic engineering," "may be produced with genetic engineering," or "produced with genetic engineering."

Food served in restaurants, alcohol, meat and dairy products would be exempt from required labeling. Meat is regulated by the federal government. Authors of the bill argue that dairy products made from animals that eat genetically modified food are not themselves genetically modified (that's up for debate...). Alcohol is not considered food. Restaurants are exempt because authors of the bill said they were focusing on foods where consumers routinely see labels.

No foods sold in Vermont after July 2016 that contain GMOs may be labeled as natural.

This is important legislation for us. Vermont is the first state to pass a GMO label law without contingencies. Elsewhere in the world, 64 countries, including the European Union, Australia, Japan and China, require labeling of GMO foods. No other U.S. states do. Not one. Connecticut passed a law in 2013 that would require labeling if at least four neighboring states with a combined population of 20 million pass similar laws. Maine passed a labeling law this year that would require labeling once five neighboring states, including New Hampshire, pass similar laws.

This is huge. This is democracy at work. This is how the will of the people is heard. My hat is off to Vermont. They stood their ground for health, for people, for farmers, for our food and for the planet. Our voices; our demand for better food; our demand for truth in labeling will result in this being just the first of many laws like it. This game-changing law could be the beginning of a turning tide for our food supply, ensuring our food remains... food.

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