It Would Be First State to Require Companies to Label Genetically Modified Products

The movement against genetically modified crops scored a signal victory Wednesday, as the Vermont legislature passed a bill that would make it the first state to require food makers to label products made with the technology.

The Vermont House voted 114-30 to adopt a state Senate labeling bill. Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he plans to sign the bill, whose requirements would take effect in July 2016.

While Vermont is one of the smallest U.S. states, the legislation marks a victory for activists who have campaigned for GMO labeling, saying consumers have a right to transparency over the widely used technology. Food and agriculture industry groups, which have lobbied aggressively to block similar measures in other states, blasted the Vermont decision, saying it was driven by faulty science and would hurt consumers.

GMOs are crops whose genes have been engineered to make them resistant to pests, better able to withstand drought, and otherwise hardier. The vast majority of corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are GMOs, and food companies estimate that about 80% of U.S. packaged-food products contain GMO ingredients in some form.

Anti-GMO activists argue that genetically engineered crops harm the environment by causing greater use of pesticides, and claim that they could be harmful to human health. They’ve won other recent victories, including General Mills Inc. decision this year to drop GMOs from its original flavor Cheerios. “People need to be aware of all the choices that they’re making,” said Andrew Pelletier, co-owner of Valley Café, a Bellows Falls, Vt., restaurant that supported the legislation.

GMO advocates note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved their use, and argue that the technology has no proven human health threats and has increased crop yields and helped lower food prices. Big food and agriculture companies—including Monsanto Co and DuPont Co. leading makers of genetically engineered seeds—have spent heavily to help defeat ballot measures requiring GMO labeling in California and Washington state.

Labeling foods containing genetically modified ingredients will require farmers, food manufacturers, distributors and grocers to spend more on record keeping and compliance, said Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington-based trade group that represents seed makers and other biotech companies.

“Chances are that product is going to be higher priced than a consumer would see in another part of the country,” Ms. Batra said.

Rebecca Spector, West Coast director of the Center for Food Safety, which advocates GMO labeling, said the bill’s two-year timetable gives farmers and companies plenty of time to adjust. “There is no reason this would put a real burden on farmers, food makers or consumers,” she said.

There are currently 62 active GMO-labeling bills in legislation in 23 states, according to the Center for Food Safety. Passage of the Vermont bill could create momentum in those other places, said Rick Zimmerman, executive director of the Northeast Ag and Feed Alliance, an agricultural trade group based in Albany, N.Y. that has argued against the Vermont bill.