Where Will Vermont’s GMO-labeling Bill Leave the Organic Brand?

Mark Keating's picture


Proposals to require labeling of food products containing GMO ingredients are sprouting up in state legislatures and public referendums across the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are GMO labeling bills currently under consideration in 29 states and after years of stalemate, the tide may be turning in their favor.  While mandatory GMO labeling would be a milestone affirmation of our right to know where our food comes from, it also has genuine limitations when measured against organic certification.

      In one of the farthest reaching victories yet, the Vermont Senate voted 28-2 on April 16 to approve the Vermont Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Act which would require labeling for whole and processed food products containing genetically engineered ingredients sold in the state starting in July 2016. The Act would also prohibit food processors from using the term “natural” on the label of any product containing GE ingredients. The Vermont House passed a nearly identical bill by a vote of 107-37 and once the differences are resolved, the legislation will be forwarded to Governor Peter Shumlin who remains non-committal on his position.

      The developments in Vermont are groundbreaking – no state yet requires GMO labeling - and are certain to prompt vigorous resistance from opponents of mandatory labeling.  The biotechnology industry and its supporters have gone to great lengths to protect their interests as demonstrated by the tens of millions of dollars they invested in fighting recent state labeling referendums in California and Washington (or delete recent and state the year/s).  An industry-sponsored lawsuit is virtually guaranteed should the Vermont bill become law. There is also movement afoot in Washington, DC to pass federal legislation preempting states’ authority to pass such legislation.  Last week, Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas and four co-sponsors introduced the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act which would preempt state authority and limit the US Food and Drug Administration’s ability to consider mandatory GMO or GE? labeling.  This proposal favors continued reliance on voluntary labeling despite historical proof that commercial food companies will universally avoid mentioning the use of GMO ingredients in their products.

       The prohibition on using GMO materials is among the many reasons why consumers seek out certified organic products.  The USDA organic standards require that farmers and food handlers verify that inputs including seeds, livestock feed and ingredients in processed foods are produced without the use of “excluded methods”, the regulatory term applied to GMO materials.  Organic standards cover many additional aspects of food production and handling including soil quality, animal welfare, and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity.  Purchasing certified organic products also provides the assurance that a USDA accredited certifying agent has reviewed the farmer’s or food handler’s records and physically inspected their operation to verify compliance with the standards.

        Just as we can’t meaningfully define an object by describing what it is not, simply identifying food as “GMO-free” or “non-GMO” provides a very limited basis understanding what it truly is.  The ongoing campaigns for mandatory GMO labeling reflect a much broader surge in consumer interest in where their food comes from which has also boosted demand in certified organic products.  OFRF supports all such initiatives which reward farmers for being good stewards of their land.


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