Three down and 14,454,450 to go. Vermont’s announcement last week that its legislature has passed a GMO labeling law was happy news for environmentalists in the country’s second-least populous state. It was big news for Connecticut and Maine, which have both passed laws requiring GMO labeling, once other states step forward with similar legislation. Both states stipulated that their legislation would not kick into gear until there were at least five states on board, with a minimum population total of 20 million. Vermont’s bill, however, will become law once Gov. Pete Shumlin signs it, which he is expected to do in the next few weeks.
Connecticut and Maine now only need another two states and a little less than 14.5 million residents to make the quota required to kick start their GMO labeling laws. That throws an interesting dynamic into the mix. California, the county’s largest population center, has already turned down GMO labeling (for now) per a failed proposition in 2012. The country’s next runner-up, Texas, is pretty much a no-show in this arena, since the Texas GMO labeling movement is all but dead at the moment and doesn’t appear likely to gain momentum in the immediate future. That leaves New York, the country’s third most populous state, and one with a track record for feisty fights. It is probably also the favorite pick in Connecticut, whose bill stipulates that the 20 million be located in the Northeastern United States.
With a population of 19.5 million to its credit, New York would handily cover the population deficit. Its resume for meeting contentious battles head-on, and standing up for “the little guy” wouldn’t hurt, either. The state’s current tug of war with Airbnb, which has been in a protracted battle with New York City, proves that the state isn’t shy of speaking out when necessary. And when it comes to pitting one’s self against GMO advocates, moxie and staying power count.
But size, apparently, doesn’t. Vermont, with a population of fewer than 1 million touts a long list of battles that have been equally unpopular in their day. The go-it-alone state was the first to ban slavery, the first to say yes for same-sex marriage and the first to prohibit hydraulic fracturing (fracking) within its borders.
Its legislature has also put some thought into the outcome of this legislation. It knows there will be prime ring-side seating should GMO advocates decide to sue Vermont, so the state has set aside $1.5 million for implementation and state legal fees. People can voluntarily contribute to the legal fund, and the state attorney’s office can also apply any other court settlements it wins toward the state’s defense, should it be sued. If it loses a lawsuit, the state could be looking at a tab of anywhere up to $8 million.
With around 70 percent of America’s packaged foods containing GMO, implementing a new labeling process would be challenging to say the least. And it would be expensive. The legislation also calls for manufacturers to stop labeling products as “natural” or “all natural,” phrases that has been widely criticized by environmentalists and food safety advocates because of the obscurity of their meaning. And, as many manufacturers that market in California know, creating two different labeling streams, one for states that regulate GMO disclosure and one for those that don’t, can be expensive as well.
For now, food manufacturers have until July 1, 2016 to implement new labeling procedures, or to sue the state, whichever path they elect to follow. GMO opponents are hoping for the former. But a suit against America’s second-smallest and undoubtedly boldest state could also prove to be highly unpopular. There’s something about the plight of the little guy in the ring that appeals to our softer side and inspires others to take action. Whether or not Monsanto and its supporters win the court case isn’t the issue. The impact to its reputation in a suit opposing the will of the voters, and one in which Americans have the choice to chip in their funds as well as their voices could be even more decisive to the reputation of genetically modified foods than a bill passed by the legislature of one tiny Vermont.
Image credit: Lindsay Eyink