Vermont Senator David Zuckerman (D) runs a small organic farm. He has constituents who prefer not to eat food grown or produced with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
"Vermont's citizens have a right to know what is in their food," Zuckerman says. It took him 11 years, but finally, in 2014, he succeeded in getting the Labeling of Food Produced with Genetic Engineering Act passed. After a twoyear implementation period, it went into effect July 1 of this year.
Two weeks later, Congress pre-empted it.
"It breaks my heart," Zuckerman says. "It's frustrating. It's sad. We need a labeling law that offers consumers clarity. The congressional bill doesn't do that."
What Are GMOs?
A plant or animal is defined as a genetically modified organism if its DNA has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. The food industry has used this technology for years to create pest-resistant plants and disease-resistant animals to ensure a more stable and sustainable food supply. From grains like rice to vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes to legumes like soybeans, much of the nation's food has been genetically modified.
In a report issued in May, the National Academy of Sciences "found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops." Still, with the growing use of genetically modified food, some question the safety of the technology and argue consumers have a right to know exactly how their food is produced.
Whether GM food poses health risks or not, the question for lawmakers has been, what level of government is responsible for what goes on food labels? With inaction by Congress, several states have taken on the task.
Leading the Way
Vermont isn't the first state to require labeling of certain genetically modified foods. Alaska enacted a labeling requirement for genetically modified salmon in 2005. But Vermont's law was the first to require the vast majority of foods sold in the state to be labeled as "produced with genetic engineering."
The law was met with confusion. "Food companies don't know how to comply, or if they are covered by the law," says Karen Batra of Biotechnology Innovation Organization, the world's largest biotech trade association. "The Vermont attorney general stopped taking calls from...