Progressives scored a victory in Vermont in April when Republican Governor James Douglas signed a bill requiring labeling and registration of all genetically modified seeds sold in the state. This makes Vermont the first state to legislate regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), requiring manufacturers to clearly mark store shelves and report sales of the seeds to state authorities.
Many farmers and activists in Vermont hope the bill, considered a small but important first step, will pave the way toward more stringent regulation of GMOs in the United States. “The biotech industry has a stranglehold on legislatures around the country, and I think it’s remarkable that we got this done,” said State Representative David Zuckerman. A member of the state’s small but influential ProgressiveParty Caucus, Zuckerman has spent more than six years promoting this legislation.
The Progressive Party had help from the state’s many organic farmers.About 20 percent of Vermont’s farmland is devoted to organic production, a higher percentage than any other state, making it the most likely place to sign this groundbreaking legislation into law.Close to one-third of all towns in the tiny state had passed non-binding referendums asking for some type of GMO regulation.
Vermont citizens made more than 1,000 calls to their legislators urging them to pass this bill, according to Zuckerman — more than twice as many calls as a “hot” issue usually generates.
“Is it a coincidence that Vermont has the strongest Progressive Party in the country as well as being the first state to pass a GM labeling law? I don’t think so,” said Chris Pearson, the party’s director.Pearson said Progressives are unique in their ability to reach out to grassroots organizations and both Democratic and Republican parties.
The bill eventually passed through Vermont’s House with a 125-10 vote.The usual rules of conduct for taking a roll call vote in the House were reversed to give Zuckerman the first vote as a testament to his hard work.
Zuckerman said, “This is both a small step and a huge step because in this country, no state has passed a law like this.”
The Vermont victory flies in the face of federal policies. The federal government has fought to keep genetically modified products unregulated since they hit the market in 1994. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers genetically modified foods equivalent to unmodified foods. The Bush administration claims that calls for “right-to-know” labeling and other federal regulation could add costs to GMO production, impeding innovation and theoretically robbing the world of a chance to feed its hungry.
The United States also aggressively defends GMOs worldwide. In the same month that Vermont passed its GMO regulation, the United States filed papers with the World Trade Organization (WTO) demanding $1.8 billion in compensation from the European Union (EU) for loss of exports over the last six years. The EU imposed a moratorium on GMOs in 1998, asking for time to determine the safety of GM food. The United States is arguing it did so with no scientific evidence and in defiance of WTO free-trade laws.
If the United States wins this suit, it would have disastrous effects on the anti-GMO movement worldwide. Any country refusing GM products would face trade sanctions. In the United States, this could create an even more hostile environment for those favoring GMO regulation.
But, for now, countries can still refuse GMO products from the United States, and U.S. activists are using this to score anti-GMO victories. Monsanto just announced it would not release its latest GM crop, Roundup Ready wheat, because the market is not ready. Conventional farmers in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Montana said they would refuse the GM wheat, fearing the loss of a lucrative trade partner, Japan. The country has said it will not import wheat from the United States at all if U.S. growers start planting the potentially contaminating Roundup Ready wheat.
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