After three years of trying to get a law passed by the Vermont legislature to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Vermonters are once again up against a governor who continues to run scared from threats of a lawsuit by Monsanto and its gene giant allies. Vermonters are beginning to wonder: What’s the governor really afraid of?
Governor Peter Shumlin has repeatedly expressed reluctance to stand up to Monsanto. His excuse? That a previous state labeling law, requiring the labeling of rBGH, a synthetic bovine growth hormone used to increase milk production in cows, was struck down by a federal appeals court. The state simply can’t afford another lawsuit, Shumlin says. But the facts and circumstances surrounding the new proposed GMO labeling law are very different from the 1994 rBGH labeling law, according to the Vermont Right to Know Coalition which has worked closely with the Vermont Law School on the 2013 version of the bill. So what’s the hold-up?
Vermont passed a labeling law in 1994, requiring that all milk produced with the aid of rBGH must be labeled as such, either on the bottle or on the shelf. rBGH, also referred to as rBST, is manufactured by Monsanto. The state’s attorney general defended the 1994 law on the basis of “consumer’s curiosity" about what is in their milk products, rather than on the basis of a compelling state interest. The state failed to raise any potential health risks with rBGH, or even to dispute the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) notion that there is no difference between milk from rBGH-treated cows and milk from animals not treated with the hormone. As a result, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit struck down Vermont’s labeling law.
Ohio took a different approach on rBGH labeling. Lawmakers there proposed a law stating that milk producers had the right to label their products “rBGH-free.” In 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the law, ruling that the state could not ban "rBGH-free" labels. The Court determined that “rBGH-free" is not a misleading label because there are, in fact, compositional differences in milk from treated and untreated animals. The Ohio ruling contradicted the FDA’s claim of “no significant differences.”
Vermont is following Ohio’s lead with its latest proposed GMO labeling law. Consumer Union’s senior scientist, Michael Hansen, points out that “...there is a compelling state interest in labeling of genetically engineered foods and that is due to the potential human health and environmental impacts of genetically engineered foods.” He also argues that in the language of Codex Alimentarius, the international body regulating food and chemicals used on food, labeling serves "as a risk management measure to deal with the scientific uncertainty" associated with genetically engineered foods, and there most certainly is significant scientific uncertainty about the potential health impacts of Genetically Engineered foods.
In spite of the changes in case law since 1996, Vermont’s Governor Shumlin still hides behind the fear that if the federal court struck down Vermont’s labeling law once, they will do it again. He also expresses fear that specialty food producers will suffer economic loss because they will be forced to change their genetically modified ingredients, or label them.
The governor doesn’t stop there in his efforts to duck and dodge the issue. He recently argued that the labeling law should be a national law; that if Vermont loses the inevitable lawsuit, it will set a negative precedent for the national GMO labeling movement; and, most disconcertingly of all, that the FDA, after “extensive studies,” has determined that there is no difference between GMO products and non-GMO products. This, despite the fact that the FDA has relied on the biotech industry’s studies, not its own, for health safety testing of GMOs.
Shumlin’s fears are dubious and weak. Surely by now the governor knows that no progress is being made at the national level. The health and security of our food supply do not seem to be a government priority. Why would a popular governor, believed by some to be eyeing a national office, think that our comatose federal government is going to fix this when the FDA has failed consumers on the issue of GMOs for nearly two decades?
As for a loss in Vermont setting a negative precedent? The governor has only to look at what happened after Proposition 37, the GMO labeling initiative in California, failed in November, to realize that another loss, though unlikely, would only strengthen consumers’ resolve. Since Prop 37 failed, more than 30 states have launched their own GMO labeling law campaigns. Vermont, Connecticut, and Washington already have bills making their way through their respective houses and senates. That doesn’t look like a “negative precedent.” It looks more like Monsanto threw down the gauntlet, and the public is responding aggressively.
That this otherwise progressive governor does not know at this late date that the FDA has never done any human, animal or environmental health and safety studies on GMO food, milk or seed is embarrassing. All the existing U.S. studies concerning health, safety and the environment were done by the corporations producing and selling the products. These corporations - Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, DuPont, Bayer and a few others - have outright refused to let independent researchers in the U.S. buy their seed for health, safety and environmental research studies. The corporations cite patent law in the U.S. to prevent qualified university researchers from conducting tests with GMO seeds.
Fortunately, researchers outside the U.S. are not as restrained by U.S. patent law in their research efforts, although researching genetically modified crops anywhere where problems are found can be - and has been - a career-ending move for some. In spite of Monsanto’s aggressive bullying of researchers, numerous studies have emerged recently which illustrate that there are serious health and safety concerns with GMO foods and animal feed. This is why 61 countries label GMO foods, including China, Russia, and South Africa. If China, where companies added melamine to watered-down baby formulas to fool the inspectors about the protein content, can label genetically modified foods, why can’t Vermont?
It’s time for Governor Shumlin to stop hiding behind a new contrived fear every week and do what 90% of Vermonters want. We want to know if genetically modified ingredients are in our food. Do your homework, catch up on the case law that has changed, and the health and safety research that has been done in the 19 years since the rBGH law was passed. Vermont’s Right to Know coalition has implored you to meet with our lawyers and scientists, and you have still not done so. Please take us up on this offer. We guarantee it will change your perspective. Vermont and national consumers have shown they will not be intimidated by Big Biotech, and have donated the necessary funds to fight Monsanto and their allies in several state legislatures.
More than 400 Vermonters turned out for a hearing on last year’s bill. More than 100 testified in favor of the bill. No one testified against it. Vermonters were waving their checkbooks and $20-bills at the agricultural committee members vowing that they would support the state in any lawsuit. Please stop letting Monsanto bully the state of Vermont. Stop protecting Monsanto’s ability to deceive consumers.
To express support for Vermont’s struggle, call or write the
Executive Office of Governor Peter Shumlin: 109 State Street, Pavilion Montpelier, VT 05609. Phone: 802 828-3333.
Will Allen is a farmer, author, and activist who currently co-manages Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, Vt. The farm is a member of the Vermont Right to Know coalition. You can view their farm activities at www.cedarcirclefarm.org.