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McCallum: GMO Law

First, bright blue and green signs cropped up in neighborhood yards atop winter snowbanks.  I passed them daily without giving them much thought except to register the message:  Label GMOs Now!  Without thinking much beyond the surface, I gave it an internal nod of approval since I generally don’t support genetically engineered foods and I want to know where my food comes from and what’s in it. Then, I visited with a neighbor who owns a small specialty food business and began thinking more about how the GMO labeling law may affect her livelihood.

I still think it’s probably a good idea to require all foods that contain Genetically Modified Organisms to be clearly labeled as such. Maine and Connecticut have passed similar legislation but included a “trigger clause” that delays it going into effect until other states join with them to fend off lawsuits that the food industry is poised to launch.  But Vermont has decided to go it alone without such a trigger and set up a legal fund of $1.5 million to defend the legislation in court.

Consequently, by July 2016 all foods sold in Vermont must declare on labels any genetically engineered ingredients.  That includes foods made elsewhere but sold here - soft drinks, boxed cereals, flour to make your cupcakes, your favorite yogurt, the bread at the supermarket, snacks served in day care centers and items that go into school hot lunch programs.  All of it, from jelly donuts to spaghetti sauce.

And beneath the emotionally charged, right-to-know issues lie questions that I hadn’t considered, like how small Vermont businesses will absorb the huge costs of relabeling or repackaging their products, or how Vermont can ensure that its out-of-state sales can compete with products on shelves in states that don’t require labeling when costs are passed on to consumers. Restaurants will be exempt from the law and may have GMO products on their menus without having to declare them.  But given how much we consume at restaurants and drive-through windows, there are those who believe we should be informed about  ingredients in those meals, as well.

In my neighbor’s company, she and her husband are the staff of two.  And like many specialty food producers that operate on a shoestring, they spent years creating a small line of quality products and refining their packaging and labeling, at considerable cost.  For me, their predicament puts a human face on the GMO labeling initiative.  While I agree that all Vermonters should be able to make informed choices about the food we feed our families, it made plain to me that beneath every intellectual social policy debate lies a human story with winners and losers.  And I was reminded of how critical it is to look past the placards and slogans into the complexity of any issue, no matter which side of the fence I think I stand on.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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