Just Label It: Vermont Leads the Way on Food Transparency

Just label it: Vermont leads the way on food system transparency

By Daniel Barlow

Our opponents called the idea crazy. We were told Vermont would become a food desert. Even if the bill passed, they told us we would lose the case in court.

Those dire and unfounded warnings didn’t stop Vermonters from demanding something that made a lot of sense to them – the creation of a state system to label genetically engineered food sold. Farmers, consumers, and business leaders in the Green Mountain State were tired of inaction on the federal level to bring some simple and straightforward transparency to our food system.

Not only did we pass that bill, we have proved those critics wrong.

The Vermont Legislature approved Act 120 in the spring of 2014. Gov. Shumlin, a Democrat who hails from the small rural town of Putney, supported the bill and signed it into law on the front steps of the State House as employees from Ben & Jerry’s, who recently began removing GMO ingredients from its products, handed out free ice cream samples.

That victory didn’t always seem possible.

Vermont has long considered various forms of GMO labeling, including a failed attempt to bolster and protect organic farming by labeling genetically engineered seeds. When Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility joined organizations like the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and Rural Vermont four years ago in supporting a new effort to pass a GMO labeling bill we were optimistic that our little state could change the way the whole country looks at and buys food.

But we also very aware of the forces we were up against – powerful lobbyists representing large supermarket chains, the biotech industry, and industrial farms. They used every scare tactic in the book to try and convince Vermonters and legislators that our state would be annexed from the national food system due to our proposed labeling law.

Generating business support for the bill was essential. In addition to Ben & Jerry’s, companies like New Chapter in Brattleboro, Vermont Bean Crafters in Waitsfield, and Gringo Jack’s in Manchester cited the explosive growth of GMO-free products – with sales of $200 billion in the United States in 2014. Labeling is on the way, business leader said, and Vermont can seize part of that market by cleaning up our food system now.

Our GMO labeling law takes effect on July 1 – legislators added in a two-year delay to allow time for businesses to update packaging or ingredients. But already many of the products on our shelves already carry the label. Just this year, companies like ConAgra, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Mars have announced they are labeling their GMO food in compliance with Vermont’s new law.

The Grocer’s Manufacturing Association immediately sued Vermont after the bill signing. The case has been defended vigorously by Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s office and a preliminary ruling landed largely in Vermont’s favor. Still, in the unlikely chance that a court overturns the bill, it’s intent has already rippled across the food industry.

Earlier this year, during the height of our legislative session, there was buzz at the State House of an effort to repeal the Vermont law before it was enacted. Those rumors did not amount to anything beyond talk. The law had support from legislators, business, and regulators.

A few days after the repeal fires died down, a lobbyist friend of mine who also worked on the labeling campaign, bought a packet of M&M’s in the State House cafeteria. On the back of the package was the label we worked so hard for: “This product contains genetically engineered ingredients.”

It was the first time we had seen those words. Soon, it will be routine.

Looks like little Vermont did the impossible – We changed the food system for the entire country.

Daniel Barlow is the public policy manager at Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. Founded in 1990, VBSR is a non-profit, statewide business trade organization with a mission to advance business ethics that value multiple bottom lines- economic, social, and environmental. www.vbsr.org