Are GMO Labels Coming to Vermont?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last year, Vermont became the first U.S. state to pass a law requiring labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients. The mandate was scheduled to take effect in July 2016. The Vermont law was the tip of the spear for an aggressive and passionate—if scientifically dubious—grassroots political movement against GMOs, as I wrote at the time.

Ever since the Vermont law passed, the processed-food industry has been fighting hard to stop it before it takes effect. A lawsuit is ongoing, but the judge on the case refused the industry’s request to halt implementation of the law in the meantime. A bill in Congress that would prohibit states from requiring GMO labeling has stalled. Last week, industry lobbyists pushed to get such a prohibition added to the grab-bag of random policy provisions buried in the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill—but failed.

The food industry fears that GMO labels will scare consumers away from food that’s perfectly safe. But more than that, manufacturers fear a 50-state patchwork of different labeling laws, so that the same bag of chips, for example, might have to look different depending on where it was being sold—an expensive hassle for the industry. They’re desperate to keep Vermont’s law from going into effect because of the risk that, if it does, more states will go that route and enact their own labeling requirements. But labeling proponents say this is a case of big business blocking people’s right to know what’s in their food.

Last week’s failed omnibus provision was seen as one of the industry’s last chances to preempt the Vermont law. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is generally pro-GMO, plans to bring together the various sides of the debate next month, in hopes of finding a compromise federal solution.