By: Mike Polhamus

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced legislation Wednesday in the U.S. Senate that would require food manufacturers across the country to label products containing genetically engineered ingredients.

The bill was written in response to legislation introduced by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, that would prohibit states, including Vermont, from implementing laws that mandate disclosure of genetically engineered products in processed foods. The U.S. House passed a similar bill blocking state labeling laws last summer. 

Leahy’s bill was written to protect Vermont’s GMO labeling law, which is set to take effect this summer. The state law, Act 120, requires food manufacturers to label most foods sold in Vermont that contain genetically engineered ingredients. Two other states, Maine and Connecticut, have passed similar laws, and 30 states have introduced labeling legislation. Vermont’s law is the first to go into effect on July 1, 2016.

“I will continue to oppose any bill that takes away the rights of Vermont, or any other state, to legislate in a way that advances public health and food safety, informs consumers about potential environmental effects, avoids consumer confusion, and protects religious traditions,” Leahy told members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry on Tuesday. “We should be moving in a direction that offers consumers more information and more choices — not less information and fewer choices.”

Roberts’ bill would prevent Vermont’s Act 120 from taking effect — a move Roberts said was needed to prevent billions of dollars of added cost to Americans’ food. He told committee members that every American would need to pay an additional $1,050 a year for food as the result of changes stemming from the Vermont labeling law.

But that figure is not accurate. It comes from a study that calculated the cost of banning GMOs. According to a research paper from the Corn Refiners Association, prohibiting GMOs from the American food supply would cost $81.9 billion annually.

The Corn Refiners Association funded study, published last month, actually found that nationwide labeling of genetically-engineered food would cost Americans a one-time total of $12 each, or about $3.8 billion in its entirety. The consumer advocacy group Consumer’s Union in 2014 put the cost of labeling genetically-modified foods at around $2.30 per American per year.

Representatives from Roberts’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

Act 120’s lead sponsor, state Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, said she is grateful to Leahy for defending the Vermont law, but she’s unsure he’ll succeed.

“I’m pleased with him for standing up and doing the right thing,” she said. “I’m looking at the make-up of Congress, and I’m thinking it will not go well.”

Webb said she’s optimistic, though, that Act 120 will withstand a suit brought against the state by food manufacturers, which is currently before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

The likelihood that Vermont will successfully defend the labeling law in court drove Roberts to write legislation to defeat what manufacturers couldn’t on their own, Leahy alleged in a press release.

Vermonters ought to be able to put their laws in place without undue interference from Congress, said Falko Schilling, one of Act 120’s proponents and the Consumer and Environmental Advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

“We’re really disappointed to see what the Senate Agriculture Committee did, moving forward with a bill that’s a direct affront to thousands of Vermonters and the Vermont legislature,” Schilling said. “We believe the democratic process here in Vermont should be respected, and Washington shouldn’t be coming in here to keep consumers in the dark about what’s in their food.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin, too, leveled harsh words against legislators who would overrule Vermont law from Washington.

“It is highly ironic that the Republican Congress is all for state’s rights, just not when it comes to issues like allowing women to make their own health care decisions or giving people the right to know what is in the food they buy,” Shumlin said in a press release Wednesday.

Webb said Vermonters support labeling for a number of reasons, including religious observances, uncertainty over genetically-engineered plants’ unforeseen environmental effects, and a lack of independent peer-reviewed literature on the subject.

Webb testified in support of Act 120 in front of the health subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce last winter, before that committee approved a bill substantially similar to the Roberts bill. Webb told representatives that surveys showed 75 percent of Vermonters support Act 120.

More than 90 percent of Americans say they support the idea that consumers should know whether they’re purchasing genetically-engineered foods, Schilling said.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, this story originally said the cost of GMO labeling would be $81.9 billion, according to the Corn Refiners Association report. The cost cited in the report for labeling is $3.8 billion.

Originally Published: VT Digger