On Thursday, Feb. 28, a group of 50 gathered at the American Legion in Middlebury, Vt. to connect with the Vermont Right to Know GMO coalition, a group that is campaigning to require the labeling of all food derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the state. Representatives from the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), Cedar Circle Farm, Rural Vermont and the Vermont Public Interest Group (VPIRG) joined other farmers, activists and cooperatives to host five forums across Vermont over the course of the week.
The talks are a continuation of the fierce debate that has been argued in U.S. courtrooms and dining rooms alike over the last two decades about the merits and the safety of GMOs.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Geography Kacy McKinney, who conducted much of her Master’s and Doctoral research on GMOs and currently offers a class on the subject, gave a clear definition of GMOs during an interview with the Campus this past week.
“One way of defining GMOs is to distinguish between genetic engineering and classic hybrid technology … With genetic engineering, we’re now able to go across species in a way that hybridizing plants could never do,” said McKinney. “We’re changing the genetic structure, and altering it to include a gene from another species.”
Despite this alteration, the FDA ruled in 1992 that GMOs were not substantively different from other food products and thus opened the floodgates. Today in the U.S., around 75 percent of processed foods are thought to be made with GMO products, while some specific crops like corn and soybeans — essential building blocks for processed foods and many other goods — are closer to 80 or 90 percent GMO.
The reason behind these Vermont forums is the bill H.112, which would require any product derived from GMOs being sold in Vermont to sport a label. After failing to make it to the floor last year, the bill has been reintroduced and has just passed out of the House Agricultural (Ag.) committee this past Friday. As the bill moves to the judiciary committee, supporters prepare with renewed vigor for another year of campaigning.
“The House Ag. committee worked for weeks on this,” recalled Dave Rogers, a policy advisor for NOFA Vermont and a speaker at Thursday night’s forum. “They came up with all these findings that say that ‘yeah, there are significant concerns and that the federal government is not doing its job, namely the FDA.’ They came to that conclusion after hearing diverse and wide-ranging testimony last year and they’re back at it this year.”
In its current condition, the bill requires the labeling of GMO products sold in Vermont and excludes dairy, livestock, food for immediate consumption and anything sold out of state. While these protocols were all present in the 2012 bill, there is one piece that was omitted in this year’s legislation: the trigger clause.
“The question of whether or not there will be a trigger clause — that is that the bill would not go into effect until some number of other states passed similar legislation — was being talked about today,” said Rogers. “Last year there was a trigger clause.”
Last year’s clause stated that after the bill was passed, the law would only go into effect after California and two other states passed similar legislation. Given that California failed to pass its labeling referendum this past fall, however, it seems that Vermont will now have to move ahead of the pack if it wants to see labeling any time soon.
“Our position is no trigger clause,” said Rogers. “There’s a fair amount of anxiety about being first, particularly when the feelings are so high … [But] if it’s the right thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.”
This moral righteousness may carry some weight in the State House, but it has become clear that other concerns are more pressing, namely the question of constitutionality and the lawsuit that many predict would follow passing legislation of this kind.
Creators of these genetically modified products like Syngenta and Monsanto have a long history of success in the courtroom. In the 90’s, Vermont passed an ambitious law requiring that milk produced from cows that had been given Monsanto’s Bovine Growth Hormone (BST) be labeled. Monsanto, ranked among America’s Fortune 500 companies, then sued the government over the law’s relation to their product. Monsanto won, and has been diligently defending its corporate, first amendment rights ever since.
“The issue is compelled speech,” said Rogers. “You are not allowed to force someone to say something that’s not true; and in the view of Monsanto et al., a label would convey false information, or suggest that there’s some difference that does not exist.”
The Right to Know coalition has done a great deal of work with the Vermont Law School to draft legislation that will stand up in court against Monsanto’s lawyers. Given that Monsanto’s revenues last year (~$12 billion) more than double the recently approved 2013 budget for Vermont, it’s not hard to see why legislators would be hesitant to invite a lawsuit that is all but guaranteed to follow this legislation.
“I’ve been talking to staffers for Vermont legislators,” said McKinney, “about how if this bill were to pass and labeling were to be put in place the state of Vermont will be sued by Monsanto. It’s a question of what kinds of resources will Vermont lose because they’re the first state to pass a bill … I just don’t see how a tiny, wonderful state like Vermont has the potential to beat out a giant, multi-national corporation that dominates the life-sciences industry.”
While the Right to Know coalition has been looking into ways for Vermonters to contribute to some kind of labeling defense fund, it is unclear as of yet if the state is willing to take on this added financial burden, particularly in light of Hurricane Irene and the recent recession.
Katie Michaels ’14.5, the student co-director of the College’s organic garden and a member of McKinney’s class, was among the handful of students present at Thursday’s forum.
“The GMO forum was certainly an experience in grassroots organizing,” said Michaels. “The audience was very enthusiastic about labeling GM products, and all seemed to share a mistrust of GM foods and the companies that create it.”
Yet while those assembled represented a unified group, Michaels pointed out that the voices of those Vermonters currently reliant on GMO technology for their livelihood were entirely unrepresented, and perhaps not considered.
“I wish there had been a bit of discussion on any analysis Right to Know GMO’s had done on the results of GMO labeling on the folks who currently grow GMO crops,” said Michaels. “I just hope that appropriate infrastructure will accompany this effort to help those currently growing GMO crops transition towards non-GMO or perhaps even organic varieties.”
Though labeling will not affect the majority of the state’s largest GMO growers because it excludes the labeling of dairy products, it does still remain that Vermont’s conventional farmers have yet to share in this labeling enthusiasm.
The lack of organizations like the Vermont Farm Bureau or the Vermont Dairy Industry Association — two lobbying groups for larger, conventional farmers — indicates a diversity of opinion on the matter, at least among the farming community.
“Vermont Farm Bureau, recognizing the importance of biotechnology to the future economic well being of the state, encourages funding effort to develop biotech industries,” reads the farm Bureau’s 2013 policy book. “We oppose placing prohibitions or undue restrictions on the development of biotechnology products which have been deemed safe and effective by appropriate regulatory agencies.”
Though again, labeling would not technically require any shift in farmer-practices, “[many] see this as a backdoor way to ban GMOs,” said Rogers.
“One of the interesting discourses,” McKinney added, “is that farmers should have the right to choose … It’s a compelling argument. Farmers do all this work for us and they need to be able to profit, they need to be able to sustain themselves, and here’s something that some believe might be able to help them to do so. It’s hard to argue to keep it from them. I’ve written articles about the problematic nature of that argument, but I still think it’s compelling. If you’re trying to avoid pests taking over your plants, why wouldn’t you want that?”
On the other hand, labeling-supporters cite research indicating a correlation between GMO crops and the onset of pesticide-resistant bugs, land degradation and other environmental hazards.
“We don’t know if they’re good or bad,” said Michaels, “but personally I don’t think we should be screwing with organisms’ DNA and then releasing them everywhere. We’re just not that smart! We don’t know what the ripple effects are going to be.”
Part of the reason for our lack of information is related to the lifetime-ownership that companies hold over their biotechnologies.
“Recently, there have been studies finding that there’s no problem with GMOs,” said Rogers, “but the research has been conducted by the industry or by people funded by the industry.”
The conflict of interests here is clear, but it could perhaps be overlooked if there were competing studies performed by independent researchers and universities. Yet not only have companies like Monsanto been able to prevent independent research, but they have also persuaded the FDA to use their studies when evaluating GMOs for market.
“Farmers have long bought seeds,” said McKinney, “but in this case, they’re buying seeds and signing a contract that says that they will not reuse, they will not share, they will not do any of the other things that they might do with seeds. They will plant them once, sell them off, and then buy again. I think that’s the crux of what’s different, that you are not allowed to experiment.”
One food company with local ties that has decided not to bet on GMOs is Ben & Jerry’s. In a recent press release that surprised many, the company announced its intention to make its ingredients 100 percent GMO-free by the end of 2013. The surprise came because the company was recently sold to Unilever, a British multi-national food corporation that contributed over $400,000 to anti-labeling campaigns in California this past year.
Though Jerry did make an appearance at Thursday’s forum, his presentation was merely to express his support for the campaign and his delight that his old company — now completely outside of his control — is continuing its tradition of labeling and transparency. In the 90’s, Ben and Jerry’s made a point of labeling its products free of bovine growth hormones, and though Monsanto filed a lawsuit, the company has been able to keep that particular label.
“When you put all of this together,” said Rogers, “I just say, this stuff is in 75 percent of the processed foods we’re eating; people are getting it three times a day; there are legitimate concerns, unanswered questions and a lack of responsiveness; in this situation, labeling something seems perfectly reasonable.”
The question for this year will be whether or not this campaign will be able to persuade legislators to take on the risk of labeling. While over a dozen other states are considering similar bills and referendums, none have passed anything yet, and it will be up to whoever goes first to take on American agribusiness in the courtroom.