The Co-op’s Big Honkin’ Guide to Vermont’s GMO Labeling Law

We’re big fans of the new law, even if it’s all a buncha hooey.

In 2014, Vermont passed a law requiring all GMOs sold in the state to be labeled by July 1, 2016. Here’s a summary to help make some sense of it all.

What Are GMOs?
The science behind GMOs is complex, but the basic definition is simple. When we alter the genetic material of a living thing so it can do something new or different, we create a GMO.

How Common Are GMOs?
GMOs are endemic to food and medicine and prevalent in many common products. A GMO may be a bacterium that puts out human insulin or an insect-resistant corn plant. Anything labeled with the USDA organic designation does not contain GMOs. 

Are GMOs Bad?
Maybe. GMOs have undeniable advantages, or they wouldn’t exist in the first place. But there is also a big unknown, and that’s what worries people.

Human meddling to modify nature is nothing new and often innocuous. Farmers for centuries have been tweaking breeding methods to produce greater yields, grow larger plants and animals, and so on. But these historical practices relied on the natural reproductive processes of the organisms themselves. In the case of GMOs, labs create things that nature cannot.

Critics contend that unforeseen consequences are inevitable and potentially dire, with health risks to humans that may include exposure to new allergens or the transfer of antibiotic-resistant genes.

Are GMOs Good?
Again, maybe. We live in a world with a lot of problems. Overpopulation, hunger, and the threat of climate change affects millions of people around the world. Supporters of GMOs believe that bioengineered foods may provide vital solutions. For instance, GMO technology has produced crops that can grow in acrid areas affected by drought, plants that don’t need environmentally poisonous pesticides, and vitamin-enriched foods that may help reduce the blindness that ravages Third-World populations all over the globe.

What Does the Science Show?
The scientific community overwhelmingly believes GMOs are safe. In May of this year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), arguably the country’s most prestigious scientific group, reaffirmed its long-held position that GMOs are safe to consume. 

So GMOs Are Safe?
It depends on who you ask. The NAS report has its critics, too. Also, science can make mistakes and claim something is safe that isn’t. Some consumers simply don’t trust the science that supports GMOs, and don’t trust that governmental agencies and scientific bodies are free from the influence of monolithic corporations that make billions off GMO foods.

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How Does Labeling Help Any of This?
Labeling is a middle ground of sorts. It doesn’t put an end to GMOs, but it does identify them. Labeling of GMO foods gives consumers the ability to know what they’re eating so they can make informed choices.

Do Most People Want GMO Labeling?
Yes. It’s an idea that has overwhelming, widespread support. In 2013, a New York Times poll indicated that more than 93 percent of respondents favored GMO labeling, and by 2014, 24 states were considering broad, sweeping legislation to label GMO foods. Vermont’s legislature led the way, passing the nation’s first law in 2014 mandating the labeling of genetically modified ingredients in packaged products.

Do Food Corporations Support GMO Labeling?
Heck no. Food and agricultural corporations spent more than $100 million in 2015 to fight the Vermont labeling law. It didn’t work. The law went through and sets fines of $1,000 per day for every product not in compliance.

How Does the Law Affect the Co-op?
Employees in our White River Junction, Vermont, store have been hard at work preparing for the law. While food manufacturers are responsible for labeling packaged foods, labeling of unpackaged foods falls on food retailers. That means our White River Junction store employees must check their packaged products to ensure they have proper labels, and must prepare labels for unpackaged products and bulk foods as needed.

Will Food Prices Go Up Due to Labeling?
Not by much. Consumer Reports says the cost to consumers of labeling would be less than a penny a day. Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, once explained it this way: his company makes label changes to many of its products every year, and it has never caused the company to raise prices.

Are There Labeling Laws in Other States?
Right now Vermont is the only state with a labeling law, but states around the nation are still considering similar legislation. And many activists believe a nationwide labeling law is not far off. Also, the Vermont law is forcing a food-industry shift nationwide. General Mills is one of many major brands that is labeling all of its products nationwide due to the Vermont law.

Are There Labeling Laws in Other Countries?
Worldwide, more than 60 countries have labeling laws.

What’s the Co-op Position on All This Stuff?
Decades before genetic engineering in food was a heated national conversation, food co-ops were raising red flags about GMOs and lobbying for a national mandatory labeling solution. Our co-op was no exception. Food co-ops cared about this subject when many people didn’t give it a thought.

The Co-op’s position is this:
We are pro-labeling. We are not anti-GMO.

Why We Are Not Anti-GMO
Despite hyperbolic claims about the dangers of GMOs, the jury is still out on how harmful GMOs are. It’s a complex, murky subject, and the conversation is often driven by more opinion than fact.

Why We Are Pro Labeling
Ultimately, we believe what most Americans do: consumers have the right to know where their food comes from and what’s in it.

Co-op Nutrition Specialist Hannah Brilling and Outreach Director Amanda Charland contributed to this post. 

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Ken Davis

Ken Davis

Ken is a writer in the Co-op Outreach Department. Email him at kdavis@coopfoodstore.com.