Vermont will be first to label GMOs

As one of the three lead co-sponsors and the floor reporter of H.112, The GMO Labeling Bill, I am compelled to respond to criticism of the new law and offer some counterpoints to opponents’ claims.  Vermont’s action is being painted by some as misguided and based on irrational fear. It needs to be stressed that this new law simply requires manufacturers to add one additional line of factual and neutral information to their food labels at the request of a substantial majority of Vermonters — nothing more and nothing less. It is not a “warning label”. If, as some claim, genetically engineered food and the processes involved in manufacturing it really are better, then this new label will give consumers the information they need to support the new food paradigm — to “vote with their wallets”. Those with other opinions or concerns will have the same opportunity to purchase food with informed consent.

The FDA’s 1992 determination that GMO food was “substantially equivalent” to conventional food was arguably made for political reasons. A 1987 video of Vice President Bush shows him on a visit to a biotech lab and records him responding to scientists’ comments about the approval process by saying, “Call me. We’re in the de-reg business.” True to his word, five years later his V.P., Mr. Quayle, unveiled the official FDA policy at a meeting of biotech execs as part of a “regulatory relief initiative” with the promise of maximum profit and minimal oversight. The policy was shepherded by a former biotech lawyer who was hired to direct policy at FDA. It is worth noting that the same biotech lawyer was hired by Obama in 2009 to become FDA’s Deputy Commissioner of Foods. But it isn’t just the politics that suggest we should be concerned about GMOs. Internal FDA documents discovered during the course of a lawsuit in the 90′s reveal FDA’s own scientists cautioning against the rapid introduction of GMOs without rigorous pre-market testing and scientific oversight because of the potential for unintended consequences. The current FDA approval process involves draft guidance on voluntary testing that is financed by the patent holders of the plant products.

Given the above, I consider Vermonters’ desire to know what foods contain GMOs very reasonable. For those who are concerned about the potential costs to taxpayers, I hope I can be reassuring. After extensive testimony from the Attorney General’s office, Legislative Council, the Department of Finance and Management, and Vermont Law School, the estimated expense to defend the bill is $1 million and between $5-8 million if the state loses, and it may not cost any taxpayer dollars. The bill prescribes three sources of money for the implementation and administration fund: contributions (which will likely be plentiful —, settlement recoveries that the Attorney General collects on an annual basis and which are estimated to be sufficient to defend a lawsuit, and, as a last resort, appropriations from the General Fund (taxpayer dollars). Even in a worst case scenario where the state loses, the total expense is almost twice what was originally estimated, and there is no contribution or settlement money in the fund, the approximate cost per Vermonter would be around $15 spread out over a number of years. A complex and precedent-setting case like this could go either way, but the Legislative Councils of multiple state governments and a number of independent organizations have deemed proposed labeling laws to be constitutionally and legally sound.

Another concern that has been expressed is that our new law will lead to a “patchwork” of regional laws that will make it difficult for manufacturers to comply across multiple states. Our committee took this concern seriously and deliberately modeled the bill after legislation proposed in other states. It also allows for the adaptation of the labeling standard to align with pending or future legislation in other jurisdictions so as to intentionally avoid such a “patchwork” of labeling laws. The federal government will likely not be requiring labels in the near future, particularly since former biotech officials continue to be involved in the regulatory process (and despite repeated bait and switch campaign promises by our current president that there would be uniform national GMO-labeling standards). Without much hope for federal regulation, an overwhelming majority of Americans have realized that proper labeling is far more likely to be achieved at the state level and so are working together to ensure that reasonable legislation is passed.

Finally, I’d like to address the notion that we need GMO technology to “feed the world”. Malnutrition and starvation are less the problems of an inadequate global food supply and mostly due to corrupt non-democratic governments, “liberalized” free trade, infinite growth economics, tribal conflicts, loss of biodiversity, and climate change (whatever the cause). America throws away enough food in a year to feed much of the world’s hungriest. Technology in the absence of good policy and intention won’t solve social problems in any meaningful way, and if food biotechnology is deemed absolutely necessary it should be done in a transparent, accountable, and open-source fashion.

Vermont’s labeling law will not impact the world’s food supply or prevent the biotech industry from continuing to produce and distribute GMOs. It will satisfy Vermonters’ basic right to know what we’re eating and where it comes from.

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