When Judge Naomi Buchwald dismissed OSGATA et al vs. Monsanto last month, it was on the basis that she did not think the corporation had any interest in suing the organic growers and trade organizations that took the case to court. But as it turns out, their fears of a lawsuit-happy Monsanto are somewhat justified. According to reports, the biotech behemoth has threatened to sue the state of Vermont if it presses ahead with the signing of the Vermont Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act (H. 722), a bill that would make Vermont the first of the United States to require labeling of genetically engineered food.
Vermont is not a state that messes around with its food – last year, the state’s Agency of Agriculture threatened to sue McDonald’s over due to its Fruit & Maple Oatmeal not actually containing any real natural maple syrup. This also isn’t the first time Vermont and Monsanto have tangled, as the state was sued in the 1990s over the labeling of bovine growth hormone in milk. This time around, however, Monsanto has reportedly threatened legal action toward the state over its H. 722 bill.
According to the bill’s website, Vermont Right to Know GMOs, it’s backed by Vermont representative Kate Webb and would require food sold in Vermont retail outlets to clearly label any food that has even been produced through genetic engineering, and would bar GMO foods from bearing an “all-natural” label:
"This is a very simple consumer right to know issue," said VPIRG Consumer Protection Advocate, Falko Schilling. "Just as you can look at the back of a soup can and find out how many calories it has, we should all be able to simply check the label to see if the food we’re considering purchasing is the product of genetic engineering. Vermonters have a right to make informed choices about how they spend their consumer dollars, and the bottom line is that we deserve to know if we're feeding genetically engineered foods to our families."
It seems simple – give consumers the choice and let the market decide what’s important – but it clearly isn’t the kind of act that would make companies trading in in this form of biotechnology very happy. According to news site RT, Monsanto representatives have outright threatened to sue if H. 722 is passed in the Vermont senate and house. What’s more, AlterNet reports that the threat is already having an effect on legislators’ will to move the bill forward:
Despite thousands of emails and calls from constituents who overwhelmingly support mandatory labeling, despite the fact that a majority (6 to 5) of Agriculture Committee members support passage of the measure, Vermont legislators are holding up the labeling bill and refusing to take a vote.
Instead, they’re calling for more public hearings on April 12, in the apparent hope that they can run out the clock until the legislative session ends in early May.
What happened to the formerly staunch legislative champions of Vermont’s “right to know” bill? They lost their nerve and abandoned their principles after Monsanto representative recently threatened a public official that the biotech giant would sue Vermont if they dared to pass the bill. Several legislators have rather unconvincingly argued that the Vermont public has a “low appetite” for any bills, even very popular bills like this one, that might end up in court. Others expressed concern about Vermont being the first state to pass a mandatory GMO labeling bill and then having to “go it alone” against Monsanto in court.
Still, supporters of the bill are optimistic about the April 12 hearing, with its website asking locals to come out and continue to show their support. It will be interesting to see whether public opinion and concern will win the day, or if Monsanto’s best interests will triumph once again.