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Why Is Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin Bowing to Monsanto?

Shumlin has repeatedly expressed reluctance to stand up to Monsanto despite the fact that 90 percent of Vermonters support labeling genetically modified foods.

Photo Credit: Tom Wang/


After three years of trying to get a law passed by the Vermont legislature to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Vermonters are once again up against a governor who continues to run scared from threats of a lawsuit by Monsanto and its gene giant allies. Vermonters are beginning to wonder: What’s the governor really afraid of?

Governor Peter Shumlin has repeatedly expressed reluctance to stand up to Monsanto. His excuse? That a previous state labeling law, requiring the labeling of rBGH, a synthetic bovine growth hormone used to increase milk production in cows, was struck down by a federal appeals court. The state simply can’t afford another lawsuit, Shumlin says. But the facts and circumstances surrounding the new proposed GMO labeling law are very different from the 1994 rBGH labeling law, according to the Vermont Right to Know Coalition which has worked closely with the Vermont Law School on the 2013 version of the bill. So what’s the hold-up?

Vermont passed a labeling law in 1994, requiring that all milk produced with the aid of rBGH must be labeled as such, either on the bottle or on the shelf. rBGH, also referred to as rBST, is manufactured by Monsanto. The state’s attorney general defended the 1994 law on the basis of “consumer’s curiosity" about what is in their milk products, rather than on the basis of a compelling state interest. The state failed to raise any potential health risks with rBGH, or even to dispute the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) notion that there is no difference between milk from rBGH-treated cows and milk from animals not treated with the hormone. As a result, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit struck down Vermont’s labeling law.

Ohio took a different approach on rBGH labeling. Lawmakers there proposed a law stating that milk producers had the right to label their products “rBGH-free.” In 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the law, ruling that the state could not ban "rBGH-free" labels. The Court determined that “rBGH-free" is not a misleading label because there are, in fact, compositional differences in milk from treated and untreated animals. The Ohio ruling contradicted the FDA’s claim of “no significant differences.”

Vermont is following Ohio’s lead with its latest proposed GMO labeling law. Consumer Union’s senior scientist, Michael Hansen, points out that “...there is a compelling state interest in labeling of genetically engineered foods and that is due to the potential human health and environmental impacts of genetically engineered foods.” He also argues that in the language of Codex Alimentarius, the international body regulating food and chemicals used on food, labeling serves "as a risk management measure to deal with the scientific uncertainty" associated with genetically engineered foods, and there most certainly is significant scientific uncertainty about the potential health impacts of Genetically Engineered foods.

In spite of the changes in case law since 1996, Vermont’s Governor Shumlin still hides behind the fear that if the federal court struck down Vermont’s labeling law once, they will do it again. He also expresses fear that specialty food producers will suffer economic loss because they will be forced to change their genetically modified ingredients, or label them.

The governor doesn’t stop there in his efforts to duck and dodge the issue. He recently argued that the labeling law should be a national law; that if Vermont loses the inevitable lawsuit, it will set a negative precedent for the national GMO labeling movement; and, most disconcertingly of all, that the FDA, after “extensive studies,” has determined that there is no difference between GMO products and non-GMO products. This, despite the fact that the FDA has relied on the biotech industry’s studies, not its own, for health safety testing of GMOs.

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