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Watts: Citizens Can Make A Difference

Angela Evancie/VPR
Brigid and Molly Armbrust flank Governor Shumlin at signing ceremony.

Back in 2013, 11-year-old Vermonter Brigid Armbrust, her mother and her younger sister Molly started attending events in the state that touched off the now national debate about labeling genetically modified foods (GMOs). By the time Vermont’s law passed in 2014, Brigid had started a list serve for her peers and organized dozens of personal letters to lawmakers - some of whom went from opposition to strong support. All told, Brigid spent more than 40 days attending sessions of the Vermont legislature.

In the spring of 2013 a slightly skeptical Governor Peter Shumlin wrote Brigid expressing support but also voicing concerns about the legal implications of the bill. A year later Governor Shumlin invited Brigid and her sister Molly to stand with him at an enthusiastic bill signing ceremony. The two sisters are there in every photo.

Now 14, Brigid says she has “a feeling that you can change things. That you are able to influence the way that government works.”

Other citizen activists were there at the beginning as well. Rural Vermont, VPIRG, NOFA and Cedar Hill Farm formed the “Right to Know” coalition. An early forum in 2012 drew more than 200 people. Testimony ran heavily in favor of a labeling law. In 2013, VPIRG delivered 30,000 pro-GMO labeling postcards to lawmakers.

Despite strong opposition from national food organizations, Vermont’s GMO labeling law is having a powerful impact on national food policy. A number of the country’s largest food companies have said they will voluntarily create a national labeling system, including Kellogg, Campbell Soup and Mars. The chief executive of General Mills recently said it’s now a fact that “The law of the land is Vermont.”

Because of Vermont’s law, consumers across the country are now buying food with GMO labels. To date, opposition efforts have failed. A lawsuit filed by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, a trade group representing the food industry, has stumbled.
But now, two influential US Senators have proposed legislation that would pre-empt the Vermont law, postpone its implementation for two years and substitute a substantially weaker national law. Instead of the required labels, food companies could provide a bar code requiring a smart phone to read. Penalties for non-compliance have been removed!

Whatever the outcome of this legislation, it’s worth noting that it was a grassroots effort on the part of many Vermont citizens and activists – including one only 11 years old – that sparked this national conversation.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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