Vermont GMO Labeling Law: Who’s the Real Winner?

The State of Vermont is poised to enact the nation’s first unequivocal genetically modified food ingredient (GMOs) labeling legislation in the country. If it passes the House and is signed by the governor, as expected, food companies would have no choice but to label products containing GMOs in 2016 or abandon the Vermont market altogether.

You could virtually hear the “three cheers” chants rising from the hallways of the anti-GMO crowd when the Vermont Senate passed the GMO bill last week. They have been waiting for nearly three years for a signature victory in the GMO labeling wars.

Through two failed state ballot initiatives, dozens of state legislative proposals and now in the corridors of Congress, opponents of GMOs have launched a full-court press with the goal of banning GMOs from the U.S. market. Now they have their test case and hope Vermont will pave the way for similar legislation in other states or passage of a mandatory GMO labeling scheme in Congress.

What about the other side – the biotech companies and food companies that oppose GMO food labeling? How do they feel about Vermont? You might expect a certain amount of panic – or at least deep concern – has set in by now. I’m not so sure. You see, fending off state ballot initiatives, state and local legislative proposals and passing pre-emptive federal legislation is costly and drags on forever.

So if, as expected, industry takes the State of Vermont to court over its new GMO labeling bill and gets a favorable decision, it could put an end to the nation’s ugly and protracted GMO labeling public policy battle.

For starters, any reasonable judge would put a restraining order in place delaying enactment of Vermont’s legislation while the courts wrestle with the case. That’s a win for industry.

If the courts eventually strike down the law, it sets a precedent that prevents or puts a chilling effect on future state mandatory GMO labeling activity. It may even encourage Congress to pass the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act pending in the House sooner rather than later. That’s a win for industry.

If the case moves relatively quickly through the courts, is struck down and puts an end to state-by-state labeling efforts, no one will be happier with Vermont’s decision than food industry leaders.

On the other hand, if the courts let the legislation stand, it strengthens the case for federal legislation pre-empting state action because we can’t have different GMO labeling standards in 50 different states. That’s a win for industry.

On its face, Vermont’s GMO labeling bill looks like a win for the anti-GMO crowd. A closer examination shows the big winners may turn out to be the growers, biotech companies and food companies that utilize the technology.

If this scenario unfolds, ultimately, consumers and global society are the big winners, as they will know their food is safe and can be used to alleviate hunger and malnutrition around the world for generations to come.

Sean McBride, Founder and Principal of DSM Strategic Communications & Consulting, LLC, is former Executive Vice President of Communications and Membership Services at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and former Director of Communications at the American Beverage Association