Vermont’s Gov. Peter Shumlin

Gov. Shumlin explains why he’s signing legislation that makes his state the first in the U.S. to require labeling of all genetically modified food.

Peter Shumlin was first elected governor of Vermont in 2010 and is now in his second term. A native of the state, he began his public service career at age 24, when he was elected to the Putney select board and served in the state House of Representatives and in the state Senate, leading that body as president pro tem for the majority of his eight terms. He's a committed entrepreneur and was the longtime co-director of an educational company that sends students on service projects across the globe. He also helped found Landmark College, which was created to help people with learning disabilities gain a college education, and is chair of the Democratic Governors Association.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Tomorrow, Vermont will become the first state in the union to require that food manufacturers label products that contain GMOs – genetically modified organisms.

There are currently 29 other states that have introduced similar bills, which the food and biotech industries, as you might imagine, are fighting hard to prevent from coming law.

Joining us now from our PBS affiliate in Colchester, Vermont is the governor of that state, Peter Shumlin, who will sign the groundbreaking Bill tomorrow. Governor Shumlin, with a busy schedule tomorrow, I’m delighted to have you on this program tonight. Thank you for your time, sir.

Gov. Peter Shumlin: Hey, it’s great to be with you. Thanks for having me on.

Tavis: So let me start by asking why you intend to do this tomorrow when you know that the very next day, I suspect, you’re going to be sued by more than one person?

Shumlin: You know, that wouldn’t surprise me, but I got to tell you, I just feel strongly that Vermonters deserve to know what’s in their food. As you know, the Western European countries are way ahead of us on this.

But this isn’t a judgment on whether GMOs are good or bad. All we’re saying in Vermont is consumers have the right to know what they buy. When you go shopping, you can look at the ingredients, see what you’re eating.

It just seems like it should be a basic right that Vermonters, and I think people across America, should be able to know whether or not they’re consuming GMO food.

People feel differently about it, strong feelings on both sides. My view is pro-choice – let consumers know.

Tavis: Seems pretty basic, pretty simple to me, Governor; you go buy something; you want to know what’s in the food you buy. I get that. If it were really just that simple, I suspect that the food industry might not be pushing back on you so hard.

Again, it wasn’t such a bold prediction. Everybody in the country who’s following this expects that you are going to be sued. So it’s got to be obviously more, it’s about more than just giving consumers what they have a right to know as viewed by the industry. What’s their beef, pardon the pun?

Shumlin: Well the bottom line is, do you not do the right thing because someone’s going to sue you? Yes, I’m not going to fall off my tractor up here if I find out that we get sued by the food manufacturers. But we’re going to set up a fund, as the bill does, to try and fight back.

We’re going to be launching at the bill signing the Vermont Food Fight fund. We invite people to come to Shumlin.gov, check out our website, and help us out. But bottom line is one of the problems with this issue is that consumers have been denied their rights, their right to know what’s in their food, because other legislators have feared getting sued.

I finally said really? Is that the way democracy’s supposed to work, that companies with a lot of money threaten to sue legislators and governors who sign bills like this, and therefore, progress doesn’t happen.

So I really feel strongly that Vermont is being bold by saying listen, if you’re going to sue us, that’s not going to dissuade us from doing the right thing. We believe we will prevail in court. We have a good shot at prevailing in court.

But Vermonters deserve to know what’s in their food. We’re going to give them that right. If we get sued, we’ll raise the money and fight back.

Tavis: What is it that you believe and Vermonters believe – and again, there are 29 other states that have similar bills. So what is it that the proponents of these kinds of laws believe they are not being told by the industry?

Shumlin: Well I think the fear really is that we’re entering in to the territory of the unknown, and the notion that – and I’m a kid that was born and raised in Vermont. We’re very close to the land.

We grow a lot of our own food; we’re one of the leaders in the nation in terms of our small farmers making the best cheese, the best maple syrup, the best products.

There’s a real fear that we just don’t know what it means when you take something that nature has created over the years and cross it with some genetically modified organism that gives it powers and processes that we didn’t know about before, and frankly that might not be good for your health.

So we’re not saying yes or no to the health question. As you know there are studies that many people pass around that say that this stuff is safe and you’re all set if you eat it.

If you believe that, go ahead. There are those who feel very strongly that they don’t want to be a part of that experiment, and we just feel they ought to be able to pick up the item at the grocery store, take a look, as we do for other ingredients in the food that we buy, and say yeah, I don’t want to eat GMO foods, so I won’t; or I do. At least you know.

Tavis: If you’re not taking the position, Governor, as you said earlier, if you’re not taking a position about whether or not GMOs are good or bad, your point is that the Vermonters and for that matter other Americans have a right to know what they’re buying.

So if you’re not taking a position on whether it’s good or bad, why not give the industry the benefit of the doubt?

Shumlin: Because there are many, many people who believe that it is not wise to be tampering with what nature has created. I’m not going to enter into that debate, who’s right or wrong there.

All I can say is I’ve had so many Vermonters come up to me from all walks of life, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, progressives, it doesn’t matter who. When they say, “Listen, what we want is to be able to know what we’re buying in a grocery store.”

It just seems like that’s a fair and reasonable request. I would urge the food industry, the big food manufacturers in America, to do this voluntarily, but we’ve asked them to do that.

They won’t, they don’t, so I think that by Vermont saying listen, we’re going to pass this bill, we’re going to sign it. Vermonters are going to know what’s in their food, first of all, I think other states will join us.

Secondly, I think it will eventually push the industry to say let’s join the Europeans. The entire EU now has labeling for GMOs, and is simply saying let’s let consumers know what they’re buying, let’s let them choose.

I think it’s a huge mistake by the food manufacturers of America not to be saying let’s let consumers know what – we know the public wants this. Let’s let them know, let them decide.

Tavis: I’m not asking this question out of any naïveté, but what reasons have you been given by the industry, Governor, for why they will not, have not as yet, done this voluntarily.

Shumlin: I really don’t know the answer to that. I can only speculate that they fear that it will – their concern, I believe, is that when you label, it’s passing a judgment. I don’t believe that to be the case.

But they would argue that you’re suggesting that one food is not as good or as wholesome as another food. Now we know that there’s people that believe that, and they should have the right to know.

There’s an awful lot of Americans who probably don’t believe that. So my point’s a simple one as a governor of a state where I’m getting overwhelming consensus from constituents.

Vermont’s different than other states in the respect that as a governor, we’re so small – we have 625,000 people up here – I see Vermonters every single day, talk to them.

It’s unusual if a Vermonter doesn’t meet me at some point in the year. Just so many of them come up to me on the street, saying, “Please, I want to know what’s in my food, will you sign that bill? Let us have that right.”

I think the food manufacturers are making a big mistake here. Vermont’s led in the past. We were the first state to abolish slavery; we were the first state to pass marriage equality, just because it was the right thing to do, not because judges were telling us to do it.

We’ve got some of the best small farmers, best ag products being shipped all over the world. We’ve created 11,000 jobs, new jobs, since I’ve been governor the last – almost 11,000 in the last three and a half years, and 2,200 of them are in the farming and food processing businesses.

Small farmers, small entrepreneurs, they’re selling great food all over the place. They really want people to know that when you eat Vermont food, it’s good, it’s not tampered with, and it’s the best food you can buy.

I think it backs up that whole part of our jobs sector by simply saying consumers in Vermont will know what they’re eating.

Tavis: What is your sense of why, again, it’s states and cities that have to lead the way on an issue of this importance to our health. Why do states have to lead and not the federal government?

Shumlin: Well let’s be – I do think it boils down to an issue that we’re all familiar with. First of all, Washington is paralyzed by a bunch of extremists in Congress who don’t want to do anything on anything.

The second piece is that the big food manufacturers make big campaign contributions to folks down in Washington.

So I do believe that real change on all kinds of issues, including the right to know what you’re eating when you go to the grocery store, that kind of change is going to come from the smaller states. Then as we gain momentum and as the ball rolls, just as we saw with marriage equality and many other things, the other states will come aboard.

But I really do believe that the basic principle that Americans have the right to know what they’re buying when they buy it is going to be something that spreads across this country very quickly, and that the food manufacturers would be wise to be leaders instead of trying to block this with lawsuits and other ways of trying to get their way. I just think they’re making a bad judgment here. They ought to come aboard, embrace this, label, solve the problem.

Tavis: If it turns out that the flip side of the end result of your well-intentioned law to let citizens know what they’re buying is that you end up bankrupting one, two, three industries within the larger food industry, how would you feel about that?

Shumlin: I just don’t think there’s a scenario under which that will happen. Listen, consumers are not saying they will not buy GMO foods. What they’re saying is “I want to know. I want to know.”

Just as is happened in Western Europe – let’s not forget, the entire EU has adopted this policy – they haven’t seen their food manufacturers go out of business. They’ve seen consumers be much happier because they know what they’re buying, and they’ve seen a continued increase in sales or it certainly didn’t hurt their sales.

So there’s no evidence to suggest that this is going to put anyone out of business. What it does do is give consumers the right to know. It’s a matter of choice.

Tavis: For all those Vermonters watching tonight, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you this question. I suspect you ain’t going to make no news tonight, but I’ve got to do my job and ask this.

You have not announced as yet, Governor Shumlin, whether or not you’re going to stand for reelection. You want to tell me something tonight, sir, on national television?

Shumlin: Well all I can tell you is that I am the governor of the best state in the country to be governor of, because you can get things like I’m just talking about done. We do things here that you just can’t get done in so many other states across the country.

So we’ve got – we’ve done a lot of great things, we’ve got a lot more work to do, and I will give you this: I would like to have the privilege of continuing to do it.

Tavis: All right, Vermonters, I think the governor just kind of said something. (Laughter) We’ll parse that in the Vermont media for the next 48 hours.

In any event, Governor, there are a lot of people tonight who are thanking you and Vermonters for taking the lead on this issue. I’m delighted to have had you on this program, and all the best to you, sir.

Shumlin: Thanks for having me on, and keep up the great work.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: May 8, 2014 at 1:51 pm