With the signature of Governor Peter Shumlin (D) imminent, Vermont will become the first state in the nation to enact a law requiring manufacturers to label food products containing genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Although this a is victory for people who eat everywhere, it’s particularly meaningful for me, since I live with my family in northwest Vermont. We grow fruit and vegetables in our yard, pollinated by two hives of bees I keep.
But like everyone else, my family relies on the industrial food sector for much of what passes across our dinner table.
As of 2016, Vermonters themselves — not food processors — will decide whether or not they wish to eat foods that contain GMOs. While other states have passed GMO labeling laws, those laws all contained “trigger clauses,” meaning those laws would not go into effect until several other states’ laws had already gone into effect.
Why the trigger? Fear of lawsuits. Monsanto and other genetic modifying corporations have threatened to sue any state that passes a law like Vermont’s. Our legislators knew this going in. My own state Representative Suzi Wizowaty (D-Burlington) warned her constituents as early as April 2013 what might lie in store for us: “Even if we win [a lawsuit brought by GMO producers], the effort could likely cost the state $10 million. If we lose, we pay Monsanto’s expenses as well. To appeal the case further, to the U.S. Supreme Court, will cost more.”
In the other legislative body, Senator Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) said, “I want to make it very clear I’m not voting for this bill because I have some passionate desire to slap Monsanto. “This is, in my eyes, a simple request that I have the right to know what’s in my product when I buy it. No more, no less.”
So we know the odds going in. Vermont’s a small state, small budget. We were sued by Entergy and lost, to the tune of millions for the state’s effort to close a dangerous, outdated nuclear plant. (The plant’s closing anyway.) We can’t afford to go dollar for dollar with a huge multinational corporation like Monsanto, but we’re going to do it anyway – because it’s the right thing to do.
I ran into Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell Saturday (we were planting trees during the state’s annual “green up” day). He said he’s heard all the fears of costly losing court battles. “It’s not about money, though,” he said. “It’s about doing the right thing. We’re doing it, and we’re going to defend it to the best of our abilities.”
In the near future, Vermont will be setting up a legal defense fund to allow Americans – Vermonters and beyond – to contribute to the fight. In recent years, California and Oregon have had ballot initiatives in which GMO producers and their allies swamped the airwaves with scare-tactic advertising. Here in Vermont, corporate lobbyists jammed the halls of the capitol, hoping to stave off our first-in-the-nation law. This time it didn’t work.
Soon, Americans everywhere can take a stand on behalf of the right to know what we and our families eat. We’ll all be able to send a contribution – however large or small – to defend Vermont’s law. (The fund has yet to be established; when it’s up and running, we’ll let you know how to contribute.)
For now, thanks to the brave women and men of the Vermont legislature – Democrats, Republicans, and Progressives for taking a stand for all of us, for our health, and for the food that sustains us.