Co-ops' Important Role in Passing GMO-Labeling Legislation
by Harriet Tepfer
Vermont’s Right to Know GMO labeling law (H112), signed into law by Governor Shumlin on May 8, was a landmark step taken by our state, the first to enact such a law without the “trigger” clause included in the bills passed by Maine, Connecticut, and hopefully next year, New Hampshire (the trigger refers to the requirement that four neighboring states pass the law before it can go into effect). Much of the credit for this victory for consumers belongs to Vermont’s food co-ops, who placed high priority on educating consumers about the issue and informing them about how to push the legislation forward. Falko Schilling of Vermont Public Interest Research Group stated, “The co-ops of Vermont played an instrumental role in helping make Vermont the first state in the nation to require labels on genetically engineered foods. When the Vermont co-ops announced their support for H.112 in 2013 it was a turning point in the campaign that helped the bill pass the House of Representatives and proceed to the Senate. The co-ops have been incredible partners in outreach and education about the many issues involved with genetically engineered foods. I know I speak for everyone at VPIRG and the VT Right to Know GMOs coalition when I say that we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to partner with our community co-ops across the state in making meaningful change happen.”
And Cat Buxton of Cedar Circle Farm and Education Center in Thetford, the Field Organizer for the Vermont Right to Know Coalition (www.vtrighttoknowgmos.org) states: “The food co-ops of Vermont have been a critical supporter in the campaign to label GMOs. Co-ops have been on the front line of this food fight since GMOs hit the market in 1996 and have led the way in consumer education and advocacy toward transparency in food labeling. Co-op shoppers, more than the average consumer, understand that the labels are the link to finding out where and how food was produced. The cooperative business principles that guide co-ops working together toward the greater good were exemplified by the statement submitted to the legislature as testimony and signed by every food co-op in Vermont to support H.112. This gave our campaign a good boost and showed solidarity among co-ops and co-op members and shoppers across the state. The co-ops also offered testimony to the legislature.
“Co-ops have also played a role in influencing the Vermont Grocers Association and the National Co-op Grocers Association toward being supportive of labeling genetically engineered foods.
“In 2014 the co-ops in Vermont supported a series of educational workshops presented by the Vermont Right To Know Coalition for co-op staff and for co-op consumers. These workshops helped to educate the public and to generate phone calls, letters, and emails to legislators, and generate many letters to the editor to newspapers across Vermont. This kind of grassroots activism and engagement is why Vermont won a GMO labeling law and will aid the campaign to win against the GMA lawsuit to overturn our labeling law. Vermonters worked hard for this law and we will have to continue to work hard to support a legal victory and mandatory labeling on a national level.”
Co-ops Play an Important National Role
Co-ops nationwide have joined together in support of the Just Label It (JLI) campaign, a national coalition of more than 650 organizations dedicated to bringing about mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods in the U.S. Currently GMO-labeling legislation is pending in over half of U.S. states, and food coops are playing a very important role in this effort. The National Cooperative Grocer’s Association (NCGA) has contributed substantially to the Just Label It campaign, educating lawmakers and the media about GMO labeling, and receiving the endorsement of a number of food producers who recognize its importance.
Our neighbors in New England who have passed GMO legislation with a trigger (Maine and Connecticut) must surely find passage in Vermont heartening. Chris Grigsby, GM at the Belfast (Maine) Co-op, told me “We’re all representing the will of the people. It’s just a matter of time if we all work at the state level.” He pointed out that because Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s want labeling in their stores by 2016, the industry is going to have to accept labeling on a national level.
Vermont, for its bold action in passing a law without a trigger, will almost certainly face lawsuits by the industries most threatened. (See addendum.) Included in the bill is the establishment of a special fund for the purpose of fighting these suits. In addition, Vermont can expect substantial aid financially and otherwise from organizations such as Just Label It and co-ops state- and nationwide. In the last two years, 29 other states have proposed bills.
Although studies show that over 90% of the public want labeling, the opposition to mandatory labeling will not give in easily. Congress is considering a bill that could deny states like Vermont the right to enact their own GMO-labeling laws. U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo (R, Kansas) introduced the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014 in April, just before Vermont's was signed into law. This bill would codify the existing, inadequate system of voluntary labeling and compel the FDA to define GMOs as natural. The measure, which has the backing of food, biotechnology, and agriculture companies, looks to nullify efforts in no less than 20 states to label GMOs. The National Cooperatives Grocer's
Association is lobbying against this bill.
When contacted about this bill's chance of passage, Representative Peter Welch (D, Vermont) had this to say, “I strongly believe that consumers have a right to know which foods contain GE crops and ingredients and that the federal government should offer protections to farmers who choose not to plant GE crops. I am a co-sponsor of the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, which would deem any food misbranded if it contained genetically engineered ingredients and failed to label it accordingly. I also signed a letter to the Food and Drug Administration asking the agency to require the clear labeling of GE foods.”
We in Vermont have made it clear that we don’t want to wait until GMOs are proven to be safe or unsafe, and that we simply want to know whether the food we buy contains GMOs. Although we made history this year, there are clearly more chapters to be written in this story.
The Board of Directors will be tabling on Saturday, July 19 from 2-4 pm in the store.
Stop by and have a cup of tea!