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November 8, 2012

With Prop 37 Dead in California, Will Vermont Become the First to Label GMOs?


While a tide of blue helped push Barack Obama into a second term, legalize gay marriage in three states, and green-light recreational marijuana use in a few others, not all election results were cause for Democratic swooning this week.

In California, voters rejected Proposition 37 — a ballot initiative that would have required mandatory labeling of foods that contain genetically-engineered ingredients. The measure, backed by organic farmers, natural food purveyors and people concerned with what they eat, was defeated by a margin of 53 to 47.

The victory for the No-on-37 supporters likely stemmed from their unrelenting media blitz in the state, such as the commercial above — it implies that the bill would financially burden farmers and result in higher food prices.

It was funded by the Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme, an apparent coterie of farmers and food purveyors, though one funded by Monsanto Company, Cargill, ConAgra Foods, Unilever, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta  and other firms with significant stakes in genetically-modified crops, herbicides, and pesticides. (Kraft, Coca-Cola, Kellogg Company, Land O'Lakes were also all backers).

By most accounts, these companies collectively poured $44 million into the effort to defeat Proposition 37; Monsanto alone gave $8 million. Supporters of the bill raised $7 million.

In the end, proponents of prop 37 failed to counter the barrage of negative advertising against the measure. For instance, No-on-37 supporters cited its absurdity by pointing out that dog food containing beef would require a GMO label, yet beef for human consumption would not; however, cows have yet to be genetically engineered. (The measure exempted animals fed with GMO-ingredients, and also exempted anything without a current label, such as alcohol and restaurant foods).

Yet the labelling of GMO foods continues to concern consumers. In California alone, supporters collected a million signatures to get it on the ballot, and a slew of national polls by Reuters, MSNBC and other have shown that upwards of 90 percent of people support mandatory labeling. Similar initiatives are inching ahead in Connecticut and Washington state. So with Prop 37 dead in California, will Vermont become the first state to require labelling of GMOS?

Last year, Rep. Kate Webb of Shelburne was the lead sponsor of a bill requiring mandatory labels, the "VT Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act." Monsanto threatened to sue the state of Vermont if it was passed. Though the bill was approved by the House Agriculture Committee by a vote of 9 to 1, it wasn't in time to make it to the floor before the end of the legislative session. So supporters need to start over from scratch next year.

And they are. This January, when the legislature slugs back into session, supporters of the VT Right to Know GMO Coalition — including the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the Northeast Farming Association of Vermont and Rural Vermont — hope to reintroduce a slightly tweaked, but similar, bill.

"I think Vermont has a great opportunity to lead on this issue," says Falko Schilling, VPIRG's consumer protection advocate. "We've been working with a larger national coalition, and so are planning to move full steam ahead."

Schilling and others are talking with legislators to craft a new bill in time for the new session. But with some legislators opposed to it — and with Gov. Peter Shumlin on record saying such a bill might not withstand a constitutional challenge — it's anybody's guess how stalwart Vermont will be in its support. With the porousness of state borders, a mandatory labelling bill passed anywhere, even tiny Vermont, would have implications nationwide; any company selling food within Vermont's borders, for instance, would have to comply.

In a fall op-ed supporting GMO labels, New York Times food writer Mark Bittman wrote, "as goes California, so goes the nation." As Vermont vies with California as a leader in transparency with regards to food, it will be interesting to see if we claim the lead.


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