By Gov. Peter Shumlin
I’ll admit that I don’t understand how Washington D.C. and Congress work most of the time. For years, Republicans in Congress have thrust the institution into perpetual gridlock, so much so that it struggles to fulfill its most basic responsibilities. Even after the death of a Supreme Court Justice, Senate Republicans are refusing to even hold hearings on a replacement. So it is surprising, to say the least, that Congress is now looking like it might actually do something. Unfortunately that something would be to ban Vermont from enacting our law to require labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to ensure our citizens have the right to know what is in their food.
The irony here is that Congress’s failure to take meaningful action in the first place prompted consumers to demand that Vermont step up. The idea is a simple one: Vermonters should have the right to know what is in the food they buy. We already require food companies to label nutritional values like calories or sugar content and to include an ingredient list. Over 64 countries already require GMO labeling. At the end of the day, it’s kind of a no-brainer. Companies like Campbell’s Soup and General Mills, with its Cheerios brand, have voluntarily labeled their products, acknowledging the fact that consumers are demanding transparency.
But Congress has failed to act and help secure for Americans this important consumer right. As they do from time to time, states have stepped into the void to take action. In the past decade, countless ballot measures and 70 bills have been introduced in over 30 states that would require labeling. Congress, however, was too busy voting to repeal Obamacare for the 13th time and shutting down the government to act. Nothing happened.
So Vermont said enough. In 2014, the Legislature passed and I proudly signed a law requiring GMO labeling in our state starting on July 1, 2016. Right on cue, Vermont was sued by Monsanto and its corporate allies who are more worried about their bottom line than telling consumers what is in the food they are selling.
Vermont wasn’t intimidated; our little state kept fighting on. Just last summer, we won an important battle when U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss denied the attempt to prevent Vermont’s law from going into effect while the suit works its way through the courts. This was a preliminary victory, meaning Vermont’s law will currently go into effect in just over four months.
Shocked, Monsanto and their cronies called on a reliable ally: the United States Congress. Last summer, the Republican House passed the DARK Act, which would prevent Vermont from implementing its law. And this week, the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee passed a bill that would do the same thing. It’s late in the fourth quarter and those against Vermont’s right to know just threw a Hail Mary.
Luckily, Vermont has a good defense with our best congressional delegation in America. Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch are on the right side of this issue. But Monsanto and their corporate allies are powerful and there is no telling what the Republican-controlled Congress might do.
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.
If Congress wants to spend its time fighting with one another rather than making laws to respond to concerns of the American people, that is the unfortunate prerogative of its members. But Congress should not drag states down with it by denying us the ability to make laws where they won’t.