Lucky Harms made with real GMO. Vermont mural by Brian Clark.

Lucky Harms made with real GMO \ Photo by Rebecca W \ CC BY-SA 2.0 
Burlington, Vermont mural by Brian Clark     

This past May, Vermont became the first state/province in North America to pass legislation mandating labels on GMO foods independently from other states. Act 120 is set to take effect on July 1, 2016, and cites a number of reasons for passing the law including: the lack of FDA regulations around the labelling of GMO foods; the lack of consensus regarding the safety of GMOs to both humans and the environment; and the consumer’s right to choose for personal, environmental, health and religious reasons. The act would also forbid foods containing GMO ingredients from being labelled as ‘natural,’ since it is misleading to consumers.

Both Maine and Connecticut passed their own versions of GMO labelling legislation last year, but unlike Vermont those acts require other states to pass similar acts before theirs come into effect. Maine’s can only come into effect once four other contiguous states enact similar legislation and if this doesn’t happen by January 1, 2018, the act will be repealed. Connecticut has similar requirements, with the added caveat that the aggregate population of such states in the northeastern United States exceed twenty million based on 2010 census data. This is a significant barrier if higher population states don’t participate. Vermont, for example, only had a population of 625,741 as of 2010. 

Labelling GMOs is not new – over sixty countries around the world require labels on products that contain GMOs, including India, China, Australia and most countries in Europe. These laws have affected Canada’s ability to export certain crops, the most significant being canola. Since the introduction of GMO canola in Canada, the organic canola market has collapsed due to cross-contamination that has rendered Canadian organic canola effectively non-existent and lost the European market for canola.

Vermont’s new act is just one example of the renewed vigour around the push for stronger GMO regulations. Last year, NDP MP Murray Rankin put forward motion M-480 for the federal government to introduce mandatory labelling on food products containing GMO ingredients. And just last week The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) published a press release calling for Health Canada to place a moratorium on approving new GMO foods, re-evaluate the safety of existing GMOs and overhaul the regulatory system.

This comes after the republication of a study out of France led by molecular biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini that tested the long-term effects of GMO corn on rats. Some may remember it for the controversy it sparked when it was retracted for not meeting scientific standards and the results were found to be inconclusive. It has been republished in Environmental Science Europe alongside their raw data from the study.

If Vermont’s labelling laws come into effect in 2016, it would set a precedent not just for the rest of the states, but for Canada as well. It would effectively force companies to disclose which of their products contain GMOs if they want to sell them in Vermont, and once that information is released in Vermont, it won’t take long to spread to rest of the country. As such, the act could have great impact beyond the one state. A number of food industry groups have already reacted accordingly.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), along with the Snack Food Industry, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers, has filed a complaint in a federal court in Vermont to challenge the recent legislation, calling it “costly and misguided.” By taking this to the federal court, GMA is effectively making GMO labelling a federal issue beyond state jurisdiction. If it is deemed to fall under federal jurisdiction, any state act regulating GMOs would be null. In response, Vermont has set up a food fight fund to help the state implement the law and defend itself against industry lawsuits. 

With enough public support, Vermont could be successful in defending Act 120 – and they won’t go down without a fight. Public demand for transparency along the food chain – whether it be about GMOs, livestock or pesticides – continues to rise, and whether or not Act 120 comes into effect, it will certainly draw attention to the issues surrounding GMOs. Vermont is poised to set an important precedent that could be a huge step towards a more accountable food system.

Genevieve is earning her master's degree in Environmental Studies at York University with a focus on sustainable food systems, food education and food literature. In The Mouthful, she blogs about the environmental politics and possibilities of food. Genevieve is a certified pastry chef and aspiring novelist. She lives in Toronto. @GFullan

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