Vermont Farmers Lead GMO Movement

Tom+Stearns%2C+the+founder+of+High-Mowing+Organic+Seeds%2C+stands+in+his+greenhouse.+%28Courtesy%2FHigh-Mowing+Organic+Seeds%29
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Vermont Farmers Lead GMO Movement

Tom Stearns, the founder of High-Mowing Organic Seeds, stands in his greenhouse. (Courtesy/High-Mowing Organic Seeds)

Tom Stearns, the founder of High-Mowing Organic Seeds, stands in his greenhouse. (Courtesy/High-Mowing Organic Seeds)

Tom Stearns, the founder of High-Mowing Organic Seeds, stands in his greenhouse. (Courtesy/High-Mowing Organic Seeds)

Tom Stearns, the founder of High-Mowing Organic Seeds, stands in his greenhouse. (Courtesy/High-Mowing Organic Seeds)

By Devin MacDonald

Vermont is one of the leading states in organic agriculture and progressive movements; the people of this state are often trailblazers of nationwide trends. The movement of the moment is the labeling of genetically modified products (GMOs). Last year a bill was introduced to the Vermont House Committee on Agriculture that proposed requiring all products that included genetically modified ingredients be labeled as such.

Will Stevens, an agriculture committee representative from Shoreham, Vt. who has worked closely on the development of this bill, explained the main purpose of the bill.

“It’s basically a consumer awareness bill,” said Stevens. “Consumers are asking for information on the ingredients of processed products and this is how the bill was proposed.”

Ingredients are important to people all over Vermont, especially farmers themselves. Jack Lazor, of Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vt. has been working to be as self sufficient as possible since the mid-1970s.

Lazor started out as a homesteader who wanted to grow all his own food.

“We started with wheat and barley in 1977,” said Lazor. “After that we got more and more cows and started our little yogurt business. We got our license from the state of Vermont in 1984.”

Butterworks Farm is principally a dairy farm, but also features its own corn meal. Lazor wanted to create a self-sufficient environment, and consequently began growing his own corn to feed to his cows in order to produce the best dairy. He did not start out with his own seed, but purchased it from various seed companies and used hybrid seeds.

“As time went on, I decided I wanted to grow all my own seed as well as my own grain,” said Lazor. “It was harder with corn because all the corn that was available, you couldn’t save your own seed.”

The available corn came from hybrid seed. Hybrid corn seed is made from two genetically very different parents, and because of their genetic differences if the seed from the corn crop is used again the next year, there is no way to predict which genes will be expressed or not. It is technically possible to save the seed, but is not an effective practice for farmers.

What Lazor decided to do, however, to make himself more self-sufficient, was use seed that grew through open pollination. Instead of forcing two very different types of corn together as with hybrid seeds, open pollination takes genetically similar corn and allows them to combine in a natural way. The idea was to “plant them all together in a patch and allow them to all cross on each other,” said Lazor.

This practice led him not only to have seed again for the next year through open pollination, but to experiment with which breed of corn functioned best for the cold Vermont climate. He now has seeds that he produces for himself and farmers all over the state. The open pollination seeds produce corn that “tastes better, has more minerals in it and picks up more stuff from the soil” said Lazor, as compared with genetically engineered corn.

Lazor open-pollinates his corn through a lengthy process of guess and check that has proved fruitful for him. Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds is focused much more specifically on the genetics and science of seed production.

“I wanted to focus on seeds specifically, the genetics and breeding was stimulating. Providing seeds to people helps people grow their own food. I have a behind-the-scenes role of helping farmers.”

High Mowing Seeds sells to gardeners in all 50 states and all over Canada. Stearns caters his company to organic farmers in general. Organic farmers all over the country have unique challenges and conditions to deal with. Generally, fertilization is done through an irrigation system with water-soluble nitrogen infusing the plants with the necessary nutrients. The soil plays no larger role than just keeping the plants where they are.

“On an organic farm,” explained Stearns, “the health of the soil is everything. Seeds that are selected and adapted to organic farms have a different way of relating to the soil so they can go get the nutrients.”

Stearns focuses on breeding new types of organic seed, which can take anywhere from two to six years to produce.

The pressure to have successful crops has led to experimentation with new seed varieties. While open pollination and hybridization are natural processes, scientists have reached new levels with genetically modified seeds.

“[Genetic modification] is something that would not happen in nature,” explained Stearns. “It happens in a lab, and is a process of inserting genes from one species into another species.”

A good example of genetic modification and its implications is an ongoing experiment in which scientists produce a strain of corn that is toxic to insects by cross-breeding corn and a bacterium toxic to insects.

Unfortunately, this bacterial insertion has also produced a host of problems. Benign insects have been killed while worms have built up a resistance to the bacteria over the course of the past decade, throwing off the natural balance.

“The EPA actually considers this corn to be a pesticide,” said Stearns. “It needed to go through all the licensing and regulations, just like Round-Up.”

Genetically modified seeds give a higher yield, but also raise a lot of concerns among farmers and consumers.

In Stearns’ opinion, there are four main reasons why someone would be against genetically engineering produce: religious and ethical issues (people not wanting to “play God”), environmental issues, human health issues and economic issues. There are a dwindling number of non-genetically engineered seeds, which limits farmers’ output possibilities.

“It absolutely costs more,” said Stearns. “But farmers need corn to plant, so when everything costs more, that’s just how it goes.”

Stearns and his team at High Meadow Seeds have been aggressively fighting genetically modified foods for 15 years. Two years after genetically engineered corn was first introduced, they published the Safe Seed Pledge in protest. Over 200 seed companies all over the United States have since signed the pledge.

Because of the activity of Lazor, Stearns and other farmers all over the state, government officials have been moved to propose a bill that would require every producer to label foods with genetically modified ingredients.

Will Stevens, an Agriculture Committee representative in support of the bill, explained that the House Agriculture Committee received the bill late in the session last year, and due to its late introduction the bill died at the end of the session.

“My hunch is that the bill will come back to the legislature,” said Stevens.

Unfortunately nothing is that simple. If Vermont were to be the only state to adopt this kind of legislation, many other farmers would be disadvantaged. Ideally this type of bill would be introduced nationally so that worrying about state lines would cease to be a concern.

Debates about the problems posed by GMOs continue. On one side, it has never been proved that genetically modified foods are bad for human beings. On the other side, there have yet to be any long-term studies on possible effects to human health.

“For me, it comes back to the fact that all the countries in Europe are complying with it,” said Stevens. “So why not? As Ben and Jerry say, ‘what’s the dough boy afraid of?’”

Almost all of Europe has instituted a highly successful labeling program, which may serve as a model for states in the U.S.

Right now all eyes are on California, where similar legislation is being examined. Proposition 37 would require one of the nations most agriculturally productive states to label their genetically modified food.

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Vermont Farmers Lead GMO Movement