‘As Consumers, We are Guinea Pigs:’ Vermont Set to Become First State to Require GMO Food Labeling

Vermont is poised to become the first state to require the labeling of genetically modified organisms in food products. Governor Peter Shumlin said he would sign the pro-GMO-labeling bill as early as this week. The new law would take effect in July 2016 and would also make it illegal to label foods containing GMOs as “all natural” or “natural.” Vermont could prove to be the tipping point in a national movement to inform consumers about whether their food contains GMOs. Twenty-nine other states have proposed bills requiring labeling this year, and two have already passed similar bills. But those measures only take effect when neighboring states also approve the requirements. We speak with Vermont State Sen. David Zuckerman, who first introduced GMO labeling bills more than a decade ago when he served in the House.


AARON MATÉ: We end today’s show in Vermont, which is poised to become the first state to require the labeling of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. A pro-GMO-labeling bill passed both chambers—passed by both chambers is now on the way to the Governor Peter Shumlin’s desk, where he is expected to sign the bill as early as this week. The new law would take effect in July of 2016. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is among those who supports the effort to label GMO foods.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: The truth of the matter is, is that labeling of GMOs is also not a radical concept. It exists throughout the European Union. In fact, it exists throughout dozens and dozens of countries throughout the world. So anyone who tells you, “Well, we can’t do this, this is just too complicated,” they’re not telling you the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-nine other states have proposed bills requiring GMO labeling this year, and two have already passed bills requiring labeling, like Connecticut, but those measures only take effect when neighboring states also approve the requirements.

For more, we go to Vermont via Democracy Now! video stream to Vermont State Senator David Zuckerman of the Progressive Party. He’s an organic farmer himself, who introduced the GMOlabeling bills more than a decade ago when he was in the Vermont House. He co-owns Full Moon Farm.

David Zuckerman, welcome to Democracy Now! What happened? Explain what this bill actually means.

SEN. DAVID ZUCKERMAN: Well, what this bill means is, in 2016, when the average customer goes into a store, they can look at a package, and on that package somewhere there will be an indicator that the food was partially or completely made with genetic engineering.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did it happen? Talk about the origins of this legislation and why you think this is so important.

SEN. DAVID ZUCKERMAN: Well, really, in Vermont, we’ve been having discussions around genetic engineering in our food for well over a decade. And I’ve been in politics doing that as a spokesperson, really, for thousands of people across the state. And the momentum has just been building and building. We had a seed labeling and registration law that we passed about a decade ago. We had a bill that was going to require the manufacturers of these seeds to be responsible for them economically and environmentally. That passed but got vetoed by our governor about six years ago—a different governor, I should add. And then, in the last couple years, a real movement has been building for product labeling, as you know, both across the country and here in Vermont.

AARON MATÉ: Now, when similar measures came up in Washington and California, we saw food companies and Monsanto spend tens of millions of dollars to defeat those bills. So what kind of opposition did you face here? And do you expect legal challenges after it’s enacted into law?

SEN. DAVID ZUCKERMAN: Well, I think many people would be surprised that there was not the airwave bombardment like there was in California and Washington. And in part, I think that’s because the average Vermonter was so much more aware, that I think those companies felt it was an uphill battle here. They already had a population of people that were much more knowledgeable and wouldn’t succumb to some of the propaganda that were in those kinds of ads, like your food’s going to be 10 percent more, or “this feeds the world,” when really there’s plenty of food in the world; it’s other issues as to why people are hungry. On the other hand, I do think that it’s likely that the Grocery Manufacturers Association or some organization that represents a lot of the food manufacturers will probably sue us. And a lot of our work here in Vermont was working to draft a bill that would withstand such a lawsuit.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Margaret Laggis, the executive director of United Dairy Farmers of Vermont, also a lobbyist for the trade group Biotechnology Industry Organization, whose members include seed manufacturer Monsanto. She told the Burlington Free Press that pro-labeling activists use scare tactics such as telling people they were being used as guinea pigs for GMOproducts. Laggis went on to tell the Burlington Free Press, quote, “Once you scare people about their food, it’s such a personally intimidating thing for people. It’s really unfortunate that people have been scared when there’s no science to support it.” That was—this is Margaret Laggis speaking to the Council for Biotechnology Information in 2010.

MARGARET LAGGIS: Most people who are eating food today don’t have any kind of scientific background, and so they have no basis to understand what food biotechnology is. They don’t understand the benefits to the environment, the benefits for the farmer. And so there’s just a huge education problem. And really, if we’re going to be supersuccessful in the coming years to getting people to be very comfortable with this technology, we’re going to have to do a lot more education and outreach.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Margaret Laggis. State Senator David Zuckerman, respond.


AMY GOODMAN: Why you’re so concerned about GMOs?

SEN. DAVID ZUCKERMAN: Well, for a long time, there actually weren’t long-term epidemiological studies on the impacts for humans, and it only just started having reasonable studies, because the seed companies controlled their seed and controlled their product for scientific research. Out of the European Union and some other areas, there are beginnings to—signs of scientific questions around how it impacts our digestive system and potentially even crosses placental barriers into fetuses. So there’s a lot of scientific questions. And so, yes, I do think, as consumers, we are guinea pigs, because we really don’t understand the ramifications of this.

I would also add, as an organic farmer, one of the things that these seed companies have used in their product is a naturally occurring bacteria that they’ve taken the gene from to make those crops resistant to certain pests. Unfortunately, with overuse of those genetic technologies, some of those pests are actually starting to show resistance. There was recently an article in The Wall Street Journal around the corn borer. And over time, what that means is that those naturally occurring tools that folks like myself and other organic farmers use in a very judicious way, by overusing them in the biotech industry, they’re going to make those tools obsolete, which means either more chemical use on conventional farms or certain products not even becoming available as organically produced because eventually those pests would not be—we couldn’t thwart those pests. So there’s some real issues there.

She also mentioned that environmentally this is a good tool. In Tennessee alone, it was reported in a national conventional agricultural magazine, they’re going to have to spend 120 million more dollars this year on added chemicals to their fields because glyphosate is no longer working like it once did. There are so many weeds that are resistant to it because of the overuse of Roundup Ready products, that in fact now stronger and more volumes of chemicals are starting to be used. So those trends are really turning around on the biotech industry, and I don’t think their information is accurate.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much, Vermont State Senator David Zuckerman of the Progressive Party, also an organic farmer. We will follow this legislation when Governor Peter Shumlin signs it, which he’s expected to do very soon, against—around the labeling of GMOproducts.

That does it for our show. Tonight, Democracy Now! co-host Juan González will be speaking at a screening of his film, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. It’s taking place in the Capitol at 5:30 in the visitors’ center. You can go to our website at democracynow.org for details. I’ll also be speaking at Dartmouth College on Friday, May 2nd, at 5:00 p.m.—there’s a change of time—at Cook Auditorium, and you can check democracynow.org.

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