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'Overwhelming Grassroots Pressure' Made GMO Labeling Happen in Vermont

  • Vermonters resent out of state pressure by big corporations
    By Ken Roseboro
    The Organic and Non-GMO Report, May 29, 2014

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Rallying Vermont food-conscious grassroots was the key to passing the state's law to label genetically modified foods, and big money attempts to persuade Vermont's citizens to oppose labeling would have backfired. That is the perspective of David Zuckerman and Falko Schilling, two of the many leaders of Vermont's initiative to pass mandatory labeling.

Zuckerman is a Vermont state senator and organic farmer from Chittendon County who introduced the labeling bill, H.112, into the state's senate. Schilling is consumer protection advocate for Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), which was part of a coalition of groups called Vermont Right to Know that organized grassroots support for the bill.

I recently interviewed Zuckerman and Schilling to get their perspectives on the historic legislation.

How long have you been working on GMO issues?

Zuckerman: For the last 15 years. We passed a GMO seed labeling law in 2004. In 2006, a Farmers Protection Act was passed that would make biotech companies liable for damages resulting from GMO contamination. But the governor at the time vetoed the bill.

When was a GMO labeling bill introduced?

Schilling: We first proposed a labeling bill in 2012, which raised awareness of this issue and helped build public support. That led to 50 house members co-sponsoring the bill when it was re-introduced in 2013.

What were some of the key factors to get the bill passed this year?

Zuckerman: This bill doesn't directly challenge what farmers can do, so the farming community was not as organized against it. The grassroots worked together and did a great job reaching out to Vermonters. We had a great (Right to Know Vermont) coalition with VPIRG, Rural Vermont, NOFA-VT (Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont), and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

Schilling: Last summer VPIRG organized a door-to-door canvass to get state senators to support the bill. Volunteers knocked on 80,000 doors and collected 30,000 signatures. This had a huge impact and gave us a lot of momentum going into this (legislative) session.

In February, 300 people filled the house chamber for a public hearing on the bill. It was a resounding show of support.

We held educational events and workshops across the state.

Overwhelming grassroots pressure made sure this bill got passed.

We were able to tweak the language of the bill and take different interests into consideration and address a lot of concerns.

Was there support from businesses?

Zuckerman: Ben & Jerry's was very helpful. Chris Miller of Ben & Jerry's worked with food producers to tell them it wasn't hard to not use GM ingredients. He also met with newspaper editorial boards.

It was important to get good business people to speak to editorial boards early to dispel the myths about GMOs that the opposition tries to promulgate.

Schilling: Ben & Jerry's talked to food producers about their experience going non-GMO and about sourcing non-GMO ingredients.

What about the Vermont citizens?

Zuckerman: Individual Vermonters' support was so overwhelming. People here resent big out of state pressure. They really pay attention to their food and want to know what's in their food. I think the same thing is happening with people across the country.

Schilling: People here were very upset with what happened (to GMO labeling initiatives) in California and Washington with corporate money defeating them. . If big companies tried to spend huge amounts of money to defeat GMO labeling Vermonters would have resented their tactics.

Did the opposition try to stop the bill?

Schilling: There was consistent statehouse presence (by the opposition) against this bill. The Biotechnology Industry Organization had someone in the room at all times.

But we didn't see the massive media campaigns that we saw in California and Washington due to the nature of the state and the legislative process.

Were there any efforts to attach a trigger clause to the bill that would require other states to pass similar laws first, as was attached to labeling bills in Connecticut and Maine?

Zuckerman: No. The chairmen of both the senate agriculture committee and judiciary committee didn't put in the trigger as the bill passed through those committees. When it reached the chairman of the appropriations committee he told the other two committee chairmen: "You didn't put a trigger in the bill in your committees, do you think I'm going to do it here?" This was a signal of how strong support was for this bill.

Schilling: Vermonters said they didn't want a bill that was contingent on other states, and the legislature responded.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association plans to sue Vermont to overturn the labeling law. Do you think it can withstand the legal challenge?

Zuckerman: We're confident that it's defendable. Our legal staff drafted the bill in consultation with the Vermont Law School Clinic which submitted a briefing. They researched cases looking at disclosure of information and state's rights.

Schilling: We're on strong legal footing with this bill. The legislature did their homework to look at all legal aspects and worked to make the bill as strong as possible.

GMA says the US shouldn't have a patchwork of state GMO labeling laws. What is your response to that?

Zuckerman: My response to that is why not label products across the country based on Vermont's law, and labeling wouldn't be onerous.

But their intent is not to be transparent.

What recommendations do you have for organizers in other states trying to pass GMO labeling bills?

Zuckerman: Go back to the grassroots; it's good to have grassroots organizations behind it. You won't outspend the other side. Building a coalition of farming and consumer groups is a very important step. Put information out there to counter misinformation at every turn. Have a good social media presence.

Schilling: Make sure you do your homework. Activate the grassroots because there is overwhelming public support for GMO labeling. Make sure you get those voices into the lawmakers because that is what makes a difference.

Where do you see the fight over labeling headed in the next few years?

Zuckerman: It looks like Oregon (which has a ballot initiative similar to those in California and Washington the past two years) is next. I think momentum for labeling will build, and hopefully states will move forward.

People in the US, just like those in 64 other countries that have mandatory GMO labeling, want to know what's in their food, and they have a right to know.

Schilling: We will see more and more states pass laws, and that will push Congress to pass mandatory labeling nationwide. Consumers will only be satisfied if we have mandatory GMO labeling as opposed to voluntary.

Vermont has established a fund to support costs of a lawsuit against its GM food labeling law. To support it go to Foodfightfundvt.org.

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