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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

GMO Labeling Supporters Question Potential Lawsuit

AP/Toby Talbot

The clock is running out on the 2013 legislative session, and it appears time has run out for a bill requiring labels on genetically modified food sold in Vermont. While lawmakers remain concerned that a state law on genetic labeling could provoke a lawsuit from the biotech industry, supporters are holding out hope.

In 1998, the American company Monsanto ran ads in France and in the UK. Monsanto supported labels on food that was made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The ads appeared in newspapers shortly after the European Union passed labeling laws.

Today, backers of the Vermont law see a huge gap between the company’s support of GMO labeling in countries where it’s required, and its opposition to the practice in America, where it’s not.

That’s a double standard, said Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne. “When you have to, you agree with it. When you don’t, you don’t,” said Webb, a lead sponsor of the measure. “We had hundreds of people that came to the Statehouse last year to ask us to please allow them to know [what’s in their food.]”

That’s the right many Vermonters have demanded of their Legislature. Some lawmakers have said they’ve received more messages about GMO labeling than any other issue this session.

The bill raises a number of constitutional questions, though – for example, do GMOs pose a potential risk or a proven harm – questions that need further legal review, argues House Judiciary Chairman Bill Lippert.

While he agrees that consumers in Vermont should get to know what’s in their food, Lippert says “to ask the state to compel independent entities to label their food is a higher burden.”

And a potentially costly one. The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office estimates that a lawsuit could cost the state between $5 and $10 million.

Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre Town, said on Wednesday that Vermont can’t afford to roll the dice on GMOs. “If there are real risks, show us,” Koch told supporters. “Tell us what the risks are. Tell us what the harms are and I’ll be a lot more comfortable with this bill.”

Monsanto wouldn’t go on tape for this story, but the company issued a statement saying despite a number of online reports, it hasn’t threatened to sue Vermont if a GMO labeling bill is approved.

Webb and other supporters are encouraged by the European ads that show if there were a number of states found a solution Monsanto could come around to support labeling in the U.S.

“If we had to go to court and we had such an ad, I think that it does make our position a little bit stronger that we should have this right,” Webb explained.  

The dairy and biotech industries in Vermont don’t see the need. They say the evidence continues to show GMOs pose no human health and safety risks. Margaret Laggis, a lobbyist for the United Dairy Farmers of Vermont, said these products have been on the market for 15 years “with no shown side effects.”

“I think what the industry has supported is some sort kind of uniform labeling rule,” Laggis said. “In the [European Union], everybody has to label. So if the FDA came up with labeling guidelines, the industry might be alright with that.”

The industry, Laggis said, would support labeling that shows that GMO technology was not used in producing food.

The House Judiciary Committee isn’t expected to finish its work on the bill in time to send it to the House for debate until later this week – just as lawmakers are preparing to go home.

Kirk is a reporter for the NPR member station in Boston, WGBH, where he covers higher education, connecting the dots between post-secondary education and the economy, national security, jobs and global competitiveness. Kirk has been a reporter with Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wis.; a writer and producer at WBUR in Boston; a teacher and coach at Nativity Preparatory School in New Bedford, Mass.; a Fenway Park tour guide; and a tourist abroad. Kirk received his B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross and earned his M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. When he's not reporting or editing stories on campus, you can find him posting K's on the Wall at Fenway. You can follow Kirk on Twitter @KirkCarapezza.
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