Vermont lawmaker and farmer pushes for GMO labels

03/12/2014 1:50 PM

03/13/2014 4:00 AM

David Zuckerman, an organic farmer and state senator, is a key advocate for ensuring that foods containing genetically modified ingredients be labeled as such.

To him, it’s a basic right-to-know issue: Polls show that consumers want to see such labeling, so there’s no reason to deny them.

“It’s up to the consumer to decide – and they want the choice,” Zuckerman said. Right now, a GMO-labeling bill Zuckerman co-sponsored is in a Vermont Senate committee, and it represents one of the pivotal battlegrounds in the labeling issue.

After ballot defeats in California and Washington state, and nebulous legislative victories in Maine and Connecticut, Vermont represents one of the best chances for pro-labeling advocates to get a clean win. And Zuckerman would be key in helping them get it.

But even if the labeling is eventually mandated, he’s not sure how consumers will respond.

Some will use the labels and choose other products. Some might shrug, once they realize that about 70 percent of processed food contains genetically modified ingredients. Some companies might change the way they source their ingredients so they can say their products are GMO-free.

Zuckerman pointed to General Mills, one of the nation’s largest food manufacturers, which said earlier this year that there was a broad consensus among scientists that “genetically modified foods are safe” but that it still planned to change the way it sources cornstarch and sugar so it can say original Cheerios are GMO-free.

“It was partly a marketing strategy, but it shows that food manufacturers recognize there’s a reasonable percentage of the population that wants that,” Zuckerman said.

Zuckerman has been figuring out consumers’ preferences as a farmer for the past 15 years, first on rented property and now on a farm he owns with his wife that contains 25 acres for vegetables, 125 open acres, 1,000 chickens and up to 40 pigs. Half of their production is sold as shares through a community-supported agriculture shares association, the rest to farmers markets and wholesalers. The labeling wouldn’t affect the farm’s products, which aren’t genetically engineered.

Zuckerman and his family live in a pair of converted silos next to the barn where coolers keep the 50 types of vegetables fresh long after harvest.

“I don’t know if I chose farming or it chose me,” Zuckerman said on a recent morning, when the temperature was hovering in the single digits and he was loading four pigs into a trailer for their journey to the slaughterhouse.

Zuckerman first tried politics while still a student at the University of Vermont in the 1990s, losing a state House of Representatives race by 59 votes. He came back two years later to win a seat, and served for seven terms before taking a break for two years to get the farm he co-owns with his wife, Rachel Nevitt, up and running. When a state Senate seat came open in 2012, he jumped back into politics.

He’s a Progressive/Democrat in the largely Democratic Vermont Senate, and he’s staked out liberal positions on marijuana policy, health care, labor relations and taxation.

The GMO-labeling bill he introduced with several co-sponsors passed out of the Senate’s agriculture committee but still needs to make it through a second Senate committee as well as the full Senate. It faces a host of issues, including whether it would violate companies’ First Amendment rights (he says no) and whether the state would be willing to withstand any expensive legal challenge should the bill pass.

Zuckerman said he thought it could withstand the scrutiny, and he hopes it won’t contain the same kind the trigger that has bottled up legislation in other states. In Maine, for example, a labeling bill passed but goes into effect only if nearby states pass similar legislation.

“The vast majority of people support the idea,” Zuckerman said of the labeling initiative. “Not all people want to consume those foods, at least until we know more.”

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