GMO bill splits local legislators by party

Wheat at Butterworks Farm in Westfield is grown organically, with no genetic modifications.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Wheat at Butterworks Farm in Westfield is grown organically, with no genetic modifications. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle May 21, 2014

by Bethany M. Dunbar

Orleans County farmers and consumers won’t be immediately affected by Vermont’s first-in-the-nation passage of legislation requiring labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients.

The legislation allows two years for the rulemaking process, and potential challenges are brewing in the courts and in Congress in the meantime.

“I’m really proud of Vermont as a state,” said Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Westfield, a leader in the organic farming movement. He said he has always thought those who like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) ought to be happy to include them on their labels.

“Well, if it’s that safe, label it and be proud of it,” he said.

Scott Birch of Derby was not pleased with the legislation. Mr. Birch is the president of the Orleans County Farm Bureau and said many in his organization did not support the bill.

“I was rather disappointed in our two state senators who said they were opposed to it and then voted for it,” he said. “There’s a lot of good from GMOs.”

He said biotechnology has made advances in yields per acre.

“If you want millions of starving people, that’s great,” he said about organic practices. He said there is not enough land base to make do with the smaller yields typical of organic farms, and if all the farms switched there would not be enough food for everyone in the world.

He said GMO crops can reduce a farm’s carbon footprint because less harrowing and tilling with tractors is needed. GMO seeds that are “Roundup Ready” have been genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide, so weeds can be reduced with Roundup instead of with lots of driving over the field with a tractor.

Mr. Lazor said herbicides are not the best thing for the soil, and there are questions about the safety of Roundup that have not been answered.

“It kind of all boils down to whether you want to work with nature or against nature,” he said.

The controversy over the safety of GMO foods is spelled out this way in the Vermont legislation:

“There is a lack of consensus regarding the validity of the research and science surrounding genetically engineered foods, as indicated by the fact that there are peer-reviewed studies published in international scientific literature showing negative, neutral, and positive health results.”

If the health issues are still undecided, consumer opinions are not.

Dave Rogers at the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) of Vermont said polls show a vast majority of consumers want labeling. Some polls results say 90 percent or higher want labeling, he said, and a VTDigger.org poll done by the Castleton Polling Institute in April showed 79 percent support for GMO labeling legislation in Vermont.

“We’re very pleased,” said Mr. Rogers. “It was two years of hard work. Vermonters stepped up and responded.”

Mr. Rogers said the Legislature and people from the attorney general’s office did a lot of work to make sure the legislation would be hard to fight in court.

“We don’t think we’re going to lose,” he said about a potential lawsuit. “One of the strengths of our effort was to bring into the mix legal scholars and experts on Constitutional law.”

He said the attorney general’s office will take money won from other lawsuits to set up a fund to prepare for an expected legal battle on GMOs.

Mr. Rogers said bills have already been presented in Congress on both sides of the GMO debate. A representative from Kansas put in a bill that would pre-empt any kind of labeling, and Mr. Rogers said that bill has about seven sponsors.

Meanwhile, bills have also been submitted by representatives to Congress from Oregon and California backing GMO labeling, and one of those bills has 74 sponsors.

“The Grocery Manufacturers Association said they were going to go ahead and sue,” Mr. Rogers said. But he added that other states have passed legislation requiring labeling GMO foods with provisions that the requirement would wait until another state passed it as well.

“Vermont is not alone in this,” he said, but Vermont is breaking the deadlock.

Mr. Birch said that, as a taxpayer, he does not support the legislation because the court battle seems expensive and unnecessary.

“I think the biggest problem is a lot of people don’t even know what GMOs are,” said Mr. Birch, who is a dairy farmer. “Maybe it gives our product a bad name.”

Mr. Lazor said he thinks corporations have taken advantage of farmers with GMO products, and he’d like to see farmers take back control.

“What’s happening is that the cost of your seed has more than doubled,” he said. GMO seeds dominate the market in corn and soybeans.

The Vermont legislation says according to the United States Department of Agriculture, genetically engineered soybeans make up 93 percent of U.S. soybean acreage, and GMO corn accounts for 88 percent of U.S. corn acreage.

The biotech companies are so dominant in corn and soybeans that they are able to drive up the prices, he said. He said he used to buy corn seeds for $80 in the 1990s, and now it’s $300 a bag to plant two and a half acres.

He has created a variety of open pollinated organic corn he calls Early Riser, and he said he can sell that seed for $150 a bag and still make money.

“I would like to see some domestic corn seed production here,” he said. He said if he can grow his own corn seed in North Troy anyone in Vermont can do it.

“We’d have our own corn seed and we wouldn’t need those bastards,” he said about huge seed corporations. “I think one of the greatest things about Vermont is that we’re so uncorporate.”

He added that it’s true that some of the commercial varieties of corn produce better yields per acre, but a lot of that has to do with years of natural breeding before GMOs ever came along. He said Pioneer brand is excellent corn and that company has two or three varieties that are not genetically modified.

Mr. Lazor grows some corn to make into cornmeal. In that case, it’s much more important to have high quality corn than it is to have a large quantity of corn per acre.

“What a pioneering state we live in,” he said.

Orleans County legislators mostly voted against the GMO bill. Senators Bob Starr of North Troy and John Rodgers of Glover voted yes, and Representative Sam Young of Glover voted yes. All three are Democrats. The rest of the county’s delegation, all Republicans, voted no. They are: Lynn Batchelor of Derby, Mark Higley of Lowell, Duncan Kilmartin of Newport, Mike Marcotte of Coventry, and Vicky Strong of Albany. Also voting no was Bill Johnson of Canaan.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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