Despite federal inaction, food packages bearing the words “produced with genetic engineering” are beginning to arrive on shelves across the United States! Major manufacturers are choosing to label nationwide in response to the GMO labeling law slated to go into effect in Vermont on July 1, 2016. Vermont has effectively set the standard for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food ingredients.
Several neighboring states are on the verge of joining with Vermont, Connecticut and Maine by reinforcing the standards and expectations for mandatory disclosure of GE food ingredients. Progress at the state level will continue until a federal mandatory GMO labeling standard which meets or exceeds the Vermont standard is adopted.
In Massachusetts, a record-breaking bipartisan coalition of state legislators has cosponsored their GMO labeling bill (155 of 200 total legislators as cosponsors). Nearly 500 local farms, businesses and organizations across the state have joined the coalition in support of the legislation. Tens of thousands of residents have made their voices heard through petitions, hearings, lobby days and call/email campaigns and the broad majority of legislators are listening. The bill was passed unanimously out of its first committee in March 2016 and is awaiting a vote on the House floor before the legislative session ends in July.
Rhode Island’s GMO labeling bill has the support of the nearly its entire House of Representatives and a majority of the Senate. New York, Minnesota and other states are expected to follow shortly. Connecticut is also working to remove the “trigger” that has prevented implementation up to this point. Discussion in Maine surrounds a ballot initiative to strip the trigger from their bill, as well.
Most reforms start closest to those who are in need of it. Important reforms, demanded by citizens, are often debated, vetted, and passed on the state level where lawmakers are closer to their constituents and less influenced by industry giants and their armies of lobbyists. Only after being faced with the prospect of negotiating different laws in different states and wasting millions of dollars in uphill battles are powerful monied interests willing to come to the table on the national level to adopt simple reforms for the whole country. State GMO labeling campaigns have been successful for this reason: a diverse, passionate and vocal constituency has been mobilized by a coordinated network of grassroots activists, overwhelming the influence and reach of industry lobbyists.
Transparency opponents will continue to cry wolf and muddy the waters, saying that “GMO labeling is meaningless and unnecessary” and even that it will somehow “destroy the food system.” At the end of the day, however, consumers have demonstrated that this information is important to them, and the issue is clearly not going away. Whether or not the old adage “the customer is always right” holds water any more, the populist tenor of today’s political climate is undeniable and growing. If anything this state-led movement for food labeling transparency is an historical test of our democracy, and the more perceptive manufacturers have already begun to move where the winds are headed.