Author Archives: Mollie

Grist: Oregon county bans GMO crops

By Nathanael Johnson
May 21, 2014
Full Article

Voters in Jackson County, Oregon, passed a measure Tuesday prohibiting farmers from growing genetically engineered plants. Farmers had spearheaded the initiative, according to the Associated Press:

The effort to ban GMOs in Jackson County started two years ago when organic farmers learned the Swiss company Syngenta was growing sugar beet seed in local fields that was genetically altered to resist the popular weed killer Roundup. They wanted to protect their crops from being cross-pollinated by genetically modified ones.

Though seed companies spent nearly $1 million campaigning against it, the measure passed by a 2-to-1 margin. The Earth Island Journal has some on-the-ground color from farmers explaining why they pushed for the ban:

“If we saved our own seed like we want to, then we would be growing GMO beets and chard. It would be contaminated with that pollen,” said [Elise] Higley, who also serves as director of Our Family Farms Coalition, the primary group supporting measure 15-119. “It’s a real economic risk for farmers having those GMO crops so close by.”

On the other hand, the Oregonian points out that the defense of property rights cuts both ways:

“Fundamentally, growers can choose what crops they grow,” said Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, which opposes the Jackson County measure. “This would really be the first example where one set of growers — those who don’t like GM crops — are going to tell all growers that they can and can’t grow certain crops in Jackson County.

A similar measure is expected to pass in Josephine County, just to the east. But the situation there is slightly different. That’s because last year Oregon passed a law that prevents local governments from regulating genetically engineered crops.

Jackson County is exempt from this law because its measure was already pending. Not so in Josephine County. If the measure becomes law there, it will almost certainly be challenged in the courts.


WCSH: Food sovereignty fight taken to Maine’s highest court

By Tim Goff
May 13, 2014
Full Article and Video

PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — A fight over local control and food sovereignty that began in the fields of Blue Hill more than two and a half years ago, spilled over into the state’s highest court on Tuesday.

Justices with the Maine Judicial Supreme Court heard arguments from lawyers representing Dan Brown, a small farmer fighting against sanctions imposed by the Maine Department of Agriculture that stem from his sale of raw milk on his farm without a license.

“I can’t give my neighbor a half gallon of milk. This is crazy talk,” exclaimed Brown as he stood outside the Cumberland County Courthouse.

Brown says it was about ten years ago when he and his wife, Judy, decided to start a small farm operation on their land at their home in Blue Hill. They had a handful of chickens and added a couple of cows.

“I loved it. It was a way of life,” said Brown.

They were producing more milk than they could consume, so Brown says he approached the state to see if they could sell the raw, unpasteurized milk, he was told he could on his farm as long as he didn’t advertise he was doing it.

“I was following their directions,” he explained. “I asked them what can I do? Where can I sell my milk? ‘If you sell from your farm, we don’t need to know you’,” he says he was told.

For several years he says they’re weren’t any problems. His operation grew to roughly 300 chickens and eight cows. He invested money in a farm stand and started making cheese and other products along with selling vegetables. Brown says he never worked so hard in his life, or was as content working as when he was fixing things on the farm.

In 2011, an inspector with the state paid his farm a visit. Brown says he was told he needed to make numerous improvements to comply with state regulations. He estimates it would have cost between $20,000 and $60,000 to meet the requirements.

“To produce a couple gallons a day, how could you ever recoup that?” he wondered. “It is the infrastructure needed to produce the milk to fall under a commercial dairy license.”

Brown closed his doors for about a week. Other farmers in the area reached out to him and told him the laws had not changed and that he should continue operating as he had been. So he reopened and was soon sued by the state.

Dan Brown says paying for the required license was never the issue, but the amount of money he would have had to invest to build the infrastructure to fall under a commercial dairy license was beyond his capabilities and something he was not interested in doing.

“This is about more than one man, milking one cow and selling its milk to his neighbor,” stated State Representative Brian Jones, at a rally before Brown’s hearing outside the courthouse. “We support the right of communities to determine how they will manage the production and distribution of food among themselves and the rights of individuals to determine what foods they will eat.”

Jones joined Brown and roughly two dozen of Brown’s supporters on the courthouse steps before his case was heard. All of them support local food sovereignty ordinances like the one passed in Blue Hill back in 2011. The ordinances seek to protect small scale food producers from having to comply with state and federal regulations and inspections.

“I am here because I believe food raised by a community, for a community, within a community should be regulated by that community,” said Heather Rhetberg, who traveled to Portland from her farm in Penobscot to show her support for Brown.

Eleven Maine towns have passed food sovereignty ordinances in recent years in an effort to support their local economies and keep them in business supplying their friends and neighbors with food grown or made in their own backyards.

Gary Cox, a lawyer with the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund traveled from Ohio to Maine to represent Brown before the Supreme Court. He says if Brown is successful in his appeal it will “be a huge victory for food sovereignty”.

The state, which imposed a fine of $1000 on Brown for selling raw milk without a license, believes state and federal statutes supersede local ordinances.

“The department really does support local food sales and these kinds of transactions between farmers and individuals,” stated Randlett. “But, again as I pointed out, it can’t be without rules.”

The Maine Judicial Supreme Court is expected to issue its findings in the coming weeks.


Thank You, Supporters!

Thank you to everyone who came out for Rural Vermont’s 29th Annual Celebration! It was a great success. All photos by Matt Hogan of M P Hogan Photography.

Couldn’t make it to the event? Get a taste and read the Farmer Stories here.


05/13 Alert: You’re Invited!

 In this update:
FromDirector

Message from The Director
Dear Members & Friends:

I can’t tell you how happy I am that the legislators have gone home. Don’t get me wrong, my time in the State House this session has generally only served to strengthen my belief that, here in Vermont at least, we still have a functioning democracy. But four months is ENOUGH!

I’m looking forward to collecting all my thoughts and notes, gathering all the relevant documents and giving you a more complete picture of what was accomplished under the Dome this biennium and how we believe it will affect farmers, their customers and the land that sustains us. Watch for a thorough legislative report next week.

BUT…Right now all I want to do is get together with a whole bunch of the good people that make up the Rural Vermont community and C E L E B R A T E!

I look forward to greeting as many of you as possible this Thursday night, 6-9PM at our Annual Celebration in Chester, VT. All the details are below.

Andrea

P.S.  If you can’t possibly fit in a road trip to Chester this week, I hope to see you sometime this summer. Look for us at farmers markets, festivals, and maybe in your own backyard!  

Celebration

29th Annual Celebration is Here!
This week! Thursday, May 15th
6 – 9 pm
American Legion Hall
637 VT Rte 103 South, CHESTER VT

We’re expecting close to 150 people for Rural Vermont’s 29th Annual Celebration, and the Rural Vermont board and staff look forward to welcoming each and every one of you.

Doors open at 5:30 pm. Come early and enjoy some pre-potluck snacks provided by Jersey Girls Farm Market & Cafe, Woodcock Farm, Green Mountain Flour, Crackers, Crepes, & Crisps, and lemonade from the Putney Co-op. Or you can beat the line at the bar and treat yourself to a cool brew at the cash bar.

At 6pm, the potluck gets underway and, due to our host venue’s incredible kitchen and capabilities, we’ll be able to support a pretty killer potluck. Want to bring your crockpot? We can plug it in. Need your dish heated up? We’ve got warming ovens. Need it kept cool til dessert? We’ve got fridge space. And we’ve even got (ta-da!) a TURKEY! Thanks to Scout Proft and Someday Farm in E. Dorset for providing this special treat.

Following the potluck and Rural Vermont’s Annual Business Meeting, including board member elections and awards, three farmers will take the stage to share their “real food” stories. Ben Hewitt, Lisa McCrory, and Tamara Martin will be telling stories about the value in cutting pigs on the kitchen table, the shift towards customers becoming characters in the story of their food, and passing on the time-honored tradition of bartering from one generation to the next.

As we do every year, Rural Vermont will be selling raffle tickets throughout the first part of the evening. This year’s theme is “Dig & Dine”! Purchase a $5 ticket from one of our raffle volunteers and be entered to win a bunch of Vermont Compost, a garden’s worth of High Mowing organic, non-GMO seeds, along with a cooler of locally-sourced and super special food.

If you’ve got friends, neighbors, or customers who care about real food, this is an event they won’t want to miss so bring them along!

Our Annual Celebration is a FREE event. Because Rural Vermont is powered by people, the more folks who become members or support our work with a contribution, the more powerful we can be in our work to restore the integrity of our food system and put the “culture” back in agriculture.

Please join  us!

Online registration will remain open
until midnight on Wednesday May 14th.
RSVP now!

RSVPing before the Wed. midnight deadline will enter you into the very last drawing for a 20qt bag of Vermont Compost, and it helps us be ready to welcome you to the Celebration! (If you absolutely can’t commit by midnight on Wed., walk-ins will certainly be welcome.
)

P.S. And if you’ve got an event of your own, or a service or product to promote, bring your materials to share on our Resources Table

LegEnds

72nd Legislative Session Ends
(You can once again park and have lunch in Montpelier)


People who eat: Won!
Corporate Bullies: Zip

We will provide a complete summary of the wins, losses and draws from the 2013-2014 legislative session next week. Stay tuned!

FOR MORE INFORMATION: 

CALL – (802) 223-7222
WRITE or VISIT: Rural Vermont, 15 Barre Street, Montpelier, Vt 05602

VT Digger: Trade group vows to sue over Vermont’s GMO labeling law

John Herrick
May. 12 2014
Full Article

The ink was barely dry on Vermont’s first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law when a national industry trade group declared it would seek to overturn it.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents cereal-maker General Mills, among others, said Friday it intends to sue the state to reverse the law.

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell said Monday the state is prepared. “We’re expecting to be sued and we’ll put the A-team on the case if and when we are sued,” Sorrell said.

Food companies, retailers and biotechnology industry trade groups oppose Vermont’s law requiring manufacturers to put a one-line label on products containing genetically modified ingredients starting in 2016. Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the bill at an outdoor ceremony Thursday.

They say GMO crops pose no risk to human health or the environment; instead, they say the law will only increase food prices and complicate interstate commerce.

The vast majority of commodity crops grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered to ward off pests and withstand heavy herbicide applications. These products are used in the majority of the country’s processed foods.

Scientific research is inconclusive on whether GMO products are as safe for human consumption as their non-GMO counterparts. But environmentalists warn these crops can create untamable “super weeds” resistant to herbicides, forcing the agricultural industry to spray more weed-killing chemicals.

“So if as a consumer you’re concerned about the long-term health of our nation’s soils, water, flora and fauna … then that could be a decision as to why you don’t want to buy a GMO product,” Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, a longtime legislative leader on the issue, said this month.

But industry groups say GMO production is better for the environment because farmers can produce more crops with less land, water and fuel.

More than two dozen states are considering labeling laws. Connecticut and Maine have passed laws that will go into effect only when neighboring states follow suit – a strategy designed to shield individual states from bearing the cost of trailblazing a policy that is loathed by well-heeled industry groups.

And now the second-smallest state in the nation is has picked a fight with some of the world’s largest food manufacturers, including General Mills, a $31 billion company that opposes state labeling initiatives and is a member of the GMA.

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell. Photo by Roger Crowley

Sorrell estimates defending the law could cost $1 million to win and $5 million or more to lose. The state is stockpiling $1.5 million through state appropriations and settlement surpluses to defend the law. The state also announced last week at a bill signing that it is taking private donations through a newly created defense-fund website, Foodfightfundvt.org.

The state anticipates a host of constitutional challenges, including free speech protections, interference with interstate commerce and conflicts with federal law.

One reason is consumer demand will force food producers to source more expensive non-GMO commodities to avoid what the group calls a perceived “warning” label.

“It’s more because of the perception that such a law sends to the consumers. It’s essentially a de facto warning,” said Karen Batra, a BIO spokeswoman, in an interview Monday.

This is a market decision food producers will have to make, despite indifference on the part of many consumers who care more about calories and prices, she said.

National polls indicate that 93 percent of respondents say foods containing genetically engineered ingredients should be labeled. A VTDigger poll shows overwhelming support for GMO labeling in Vermont. The chorus backing Vermont’s bill has been about a consumer’s “right to know” what is in their food.

It’s also unclear whether these food producers will stop selling to Vermont’s 626,000 residents altogether. Opponents of the labeling law say it may cost these companies less to exclude Vermont’s market than to comply.

“That’s just one of these scare tactics that industry folks are trying to build … against a law that is very popular,” Sorrell said of the possibility sale restrictions in Vermont.

He said attorneys general across the country are putting bipartisan support behind Vermont’s law.

“I think this issue of GE food labeling is going to be one that’s going to be enacted in other states going forward,” he said.

He said the Attorney General’s Office will have regulatory rules on the labeling law drafted as soon as late summer. This will include how the label will appear on the food packages. There will be a chance for the public to comment on the regulations, he said.


GMO Labeling is Law!

Rural Vermont GMO Labeling Bill Signed into LawOn May 8th, Governor Shumlin signed Vermont’s GMO labeling bill into law, making Vermont the first state that will require labels on genetically engineered foods! The law will require labels on genetically engineered foods sold at retail outlets in Vermont, and will go in to effect on July 1st 2016. The law would also prohibit labeling products produced with genetic engineering as “natural”, “100% natural” or “all natural”.

Now the work to implement and defend the law begins. If you want to be able to choose food that supports your values consider making a contribution here: http://www.foodfightfundvt.org/

Thank you to all of the activists across the state for this victory!

Read the VPR article about the signing ceremony, and check out the great slideshow of photos from the event.


VT Digger: Shumlin signs landmark GMO labeling law

John Herrick
May. 8 2014
Full Article and Video

Vermont will be the first state in the nation to require food manufacturers to label products containing genetically modified ingredients. It will also likely be the first state to defend the GMO labeling law in court, state officials say.

The fight ahead did not cloud a festive bill-signing on the Statehouse steps Thursday afternoon where more than 100 pro-labeling public health advocates, lawmakers and residents cheered in support of the landmark policy.

“Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: They want to know what’s in their food,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said. “We are pro-choice. We are pro-information. Vermont gets it right with this bill.”

The law requires food manufacturers selling in Vermont to label products containing genetically engineered ingredients starting July 1, 2016. These products can also no longer be labeled “natural” or “naturally made.”

Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, who has been pushing for the bill for much of his nearly two decades in the Legislature, said Vermont’s law will create a “domino effect” across the nation.

“This is one of the cases where grassroots democracy really did win the day and hopefully we can carry it on into the future,” Zuckerman said.

Most commodity crops sold in the U.S. are genetically engineered to ward off pests and withstand applications of weed-killing herbicides. The majority of processed foods sold in supermarkets contain genetically modified ingredients.

There is no scientific consensus whether genetically modified foods are safe for consumption. But the pro-labeling chorus in Vermont was about consumers’ “right to know” what is in their food.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said lawmakers received letters from multinational companies threatening to challenge the state’s policy in court.

“A lot of times that scares people. But you know what? Not us,” Campbell said. “We are going to do what is right for the people of Vermont and the people of this country. And that’s to make sure that you have the right to know what is in your food.”

The biotechnology industry, which manufactures genetically engineered food products, opposes Vermont’s legislation. Industry representatives prefer a national solution instead and there have been many predictions that they will sue Vermont over the law.

The Vermont Attorney General anticipates defending the law in court, which he estimates could cost $1 million to win and $5 million or more to lose.

“The constitutionality of the GMO labeling law will undoubtedly be challenged,” Sorrell said in a statement.

“I can make no predictions or promises about how the courts will ultimately rule but I can promise that my office will mount a vigorous and zealous defense of the law that has so much support from Vermont consumers,” Sorrell said.

That’s why the bill includes a $1.5 million special fund reserved for defending the state in court. This money would be raised from state appropriations, private donations and surplus settlement proceeds. The state is taking private donations through a newly created donation website, Foodfightfundvt.org.

Paul Burns is executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which organized a grassroots campaign backing the labeling law that gathered more than 32,000 signatures across the state.

“By passing this law with no strings attached, Vermont has sent a message out loud and clear: that no company – no matter how big, no matter how rich, no matter how powerful – can deny you the right to know what’s in your food,” Burns said.

Unlike other states’ GMO labeling policies that would take effect only when neighboring states pass similar policies, Vermont’s law does not have a so-called trigger.

“We aren’t waiting for anybody else … to us it’s OK to stand up and protect our citizens,” Burns said.

But opponents of the bill question whether Vermont has a large enough market to force food manufacturers to label products.

Environmentalists point out that genetically engineered crops allow for the heavy application of weed killers, and U.S. farmers this year are using more herbicides to kill off herbicide-resistant “superweeds.”

Carl Russell chairs the board for Rural Vermont, an agricultural advocacy organization supporting the policy.

“It now gives people the opportunity to not only know what goes in their food, but it also gives them a choice to support the kind of agriculture that they want to see in the state of Vermont,” Russell said.


VPR: GMO Bill Signed, Lawsuit Expected; Shumlin Asks For Help With ‘Food Fight’ Fund

May 8, 2014Full Article and Slideshow

Vermont has become the first state in the nation to require food manufacturers to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients.

At a bill signing ceremony on the steps of the state capital, a few hundred supporters cheered Thursday as Gov. Peter Shumlin signed legislation he says will empower Vermont consumers.

“Vermonters have spoken loud and clear, they want to know what’s in their food,”  Shumlin said. “We are pro-choice. We are pro-information. Vermont gets it right with this bill.”

The majority of the corn, soybeans and canola grown in the United States are genetically engineered, mostly to resist certain pests or herbicides. That means most packaged food sold in this country contains products that were grown with genetic engineering.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell says he doesn’t yet know what the label will look like, but he is sure of one thing: “I’ll be very surprised if we are not sued,” he says, by companies like Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of genetically engineered seeds.

Monsanto hasn’t commented on Vermont’s law yet, but Sorrell says he wouldn’t be surprised if there are constitutional claims, claims that the law would compel speech or claims the law poses a burden on interstate commerce.

Many Vermonters say they’re worried about potential health risks and just want to know what’s in their food.

“There’s no requirement that you have to show that these foods are actually harmful to health in order to require a company to disclose that genetic engineering was used,” says Laura Murphy, who works in the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Vermont Law School.

But according to Keith Matthews, that isn’t a valid argument. Matthews is an attorney who often represents private sector clients in environmental and regulatory matters. He thinks the court would require proof that people were harmed by eating food containing GMOs.

Matthews used to work for the Environmental Protection Agency and ran the unit that registers and regulates genetically engineered crops.

“You’ve got three federal agencies that engage in rigorous review of these products and determine that there is no risk, that they don’t cause any adverse effects in the environmental context when they’re being grown,” he says. “Nor do they pose any risk to humans when they’re consumed.”

Debate over the potential risks of genetically engineered food is heated. Most scientists say there’s no evidence of harm in eating foods made with genetic engineering.

But anti-GMO advocates say the long-term effects aren’t yet known. Some countries have taken a more cautious approach, and Vermont seeks to emulate the European Union, where labeling rules have been in place for more than a decade. U.S. law, however, is different.

Without a change to federal regulations, Vermont’s statute is likely to face major challenges. But the state lawmakers who wrote the law say they’re ready for that. The legislation includes a $1.5 million legal fund to help cover costs if the state loses in court.

And at the signing ceremony, Shumlin announced the formation of a legal defense fund, called the Food Fight Fund, and asked people from across the country to contribute.


Burlington Free Press/USA Today: Got (raw) milk? Advocates want you to get the choice

By Mary Bowerman
May 5, 2014
Full Article

Public health officials will tell you that drinking raw milk is not worth the risk of suffering a food-borne illness. But advocates — who contend raw or unpasteurized milk can battle everything from autism to allergies — are behind bills in a number of states to open the door to raw milk sales. Further, Congress is entertaining two bills to make it easier to buy and transport raw milk across state lines.

While 30 states in the U.S. allow consumer sale of raw milk in some form, a 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that unpasteurized products are 150 times more likely to cause food-borne illnesses than pasteurized versions. But advocates say the health benefits outweigh the negatives, and people should have the right to choose what they want to eat or drink.

Pasteurization is the process of heating milk to kill microorganisms. Typically milk is held at 161 degrees for 15 seconds, a process called flash pasteurization. Under a 1987 federal law, products made from unpasteurized milk may not be sold or traded across state borders.

Currently states are divided into areas where the sale of raw milk for human consumption is illegal to states that allow some form of sale, whether for pet food, retail sale, farm sales or herd shares (where consumers purchase a share of a farmer’s herd in exchange for raw milk).

Rep. Thomas Massie, R- Ky., recently introduced two bills: The first would end the interstate ban on raw milk sales, and the second would allow interstate transport between states where raw milk is currently legal.

According to The Conference of State Legislatures at the state level, 40 bills to allow raw milk sales or ease current restrictions have been introduced in 23 states.

Sally Fallon Morell, the president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit education foundation and advocate of raw milk, said if consumers want to drink raw milk they will find a way, many times going to states where it is legal.

“It’s grossly unfair for farmers in states where it is illegal to sell raw milk,” Fallon Morell said. “It doesn’t mean people will stop drinking it. It just means those farmers cannot profit from the enthusiasm for raw milk.”

The foundation fights for the legal sale of unpasteurized milk and a ban on soy-based formulas for infants, based on the theories of Weston Price, a 20th-century Cleveland dentist, believing that pasteurizing milk destroys vitamins and damages health-giving enzymes in milk.

Much of the information on raw milk is based on anecdotal accounts of its benefits. RealMilk.com, a website by the Weston A. Price Foundation, says that in addition to helping grow children’s nervous systems, raw milk produces bacteria that help break down lactose, making it easier to digest for people with lactose intolerance.

“We have thousands of testimonies from people who can’t drink pasteurized milk but have no problem with raw milk,” Fallon Morell said.


VT Digger: Glenn Gilchrist: Vermont identified as a hotbed of science denial

May 7, 2014
By Glenn Gilchrist
Full Article

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Glenn Gilchrist, an environmentalist who has worked with both national and grassroots organizations. He is also a nature photographer and freelance writer. His blog is at www.glenngilchrist.com.

Can you imagine a circumstance that would prompt serious journalists with national exposure to equate Vermonters in general and their lawmakers specifically with “climate change skeptics” and “science denying creationists”? Well, Vermonter, it seems that your insistence on being informed about the contents of the food you eat has just relegated you to the scrap heap of scientific ignorance and denial. At least that is how some journalists are telling it.

Our critics, who include writers for Forbes and Discover Magazine, state that the evidence supporting GMO food safety is so convincing that no further debate is required and that GMO skeptics are no more credible than any other science denier. Not only do they discount all arguments that question GMO food safety, they also ignore the many other important and related issues addressed in Vermont H.112.

Trevor Butterworth, writing for Forbes, states in his post “Science Free News Coverage of Vermont GMO Labeling” that reporters should be characterizing Vermont’s legislation as a misrepresentation of scientific expertise. He writes that media coverage of the legislation is biased, and with the exception of a Reuters news article, completely lacks scientific comment by geneticists or biologists.

The Reuters article references a statement made last October by a “Group of 93” international scientists who said there was a lack of empirical and scientific evidence to support false claims by the bio-tech industry about a “consensus” on safety. So while Butterworth is pleased to hear from science, he dismisses this particular group as unqualified.

In other words, Butterworth asserts that Vermont lawmakers ignored, or were ignorant of science when they crafted GMO labeling legislation, and the media as a whole is guilty of the same.

Note however, that Vermont H.112 does not exactly ignore the issue of science as noted here in Section 1 (D):

“… the FDA regulates genetically engineered foods in the same way it regulates foods developed by traditional plant breeding, but, according to Dr. James Maryanski, FDA biotechnology coordinator (1985−2008), the decision to regulate genetically engineered food in this manner was a political decision not based in science” (emphasis added).

Butterworth refers us to an “excellent” discussion of GMO science by Keith Kloor, a distinguished, generally progressive journalist writing on Discovery Magazine’s blog (“GMOs, Journalism and False Balance”) where he characterizes the “Group of 93 “ as a “fringy, science denying group (on the issue of GMO safety, anyway).”

The group, by the way, has grown to 297 scientists and professionals associated with the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER).

ENSSER responds in “297 scientists and experts agree GMOs not proven safe” with comments by Dr. Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University that:

“Adverse consequences of GMO crops are not restricted to keeling over dead after eating genetically adulterated unlabeled food (GAUF). My concerns include subtle changes in nutritional quality or mycotoxins, increasing food allergens, unsustainable farming practices, dependency on chemical inputs, lack of transparency in evaluating food quality and safety, and the transformation of farming practices into a modern form of serfdom, where the seed is intellectual property leased by the farmer” (emphasis added).

Note that the ENSSER statement extends the argument well beyond just food safety, as does Vermont in Section 1 (G) of H.112:

“The result is public uncertainty about the nutrition, health, safety, environmental impacts, and the proliferation of genetic engineering technology …”

Butterworth and Kloor discount the opinions of the group because not all of the scientists who signed the statement are geneticists, and because one of them, Gilles-Eric Séralin, authored a study that was subsequently denounced by critics – about which the Economist reported “that the journal’s publisher said there was no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data.”

If we look at the facts, we find that the group of 297 signatories (as of Oct. 31, 2013) may not all be geneticists, but the majority are engaged in some area of science or agriculture. It is safe to assume that most are familiar with the concept of the scientific method and can read a scientific paper beyond the abstract. But the point is moot – focusing on and then discounting the work of one group of scientists does not discount their entire field of study.

The reality is that the scientific literature is rife with examples of animal studies that support GMO product safety. It is also rife with studies that shed doubt on GMO product safety. It is also true that there are far more scientists than the Group of 297 voicing serious concerns. For example, Dr. Don Huber, a leading GMO expert, award-winning, internationally recognized scientist, and professor of plant pathology at Purdue University for the past 35 years, has stated clearly that there are no peer-reviewed scientific papers establishing the safety of GMO crops.

It seems obvious that what we have here does not constitute a consensus, yet Kloor states that by giving these scientists a voice, the media is guilty of “false balance” and has created a “false equivalence.” He compares GMO label proponents with climate change deniers as if the weight of evidence purported by the different sides of these differing subjects was identical.

Butterworth and Kloor suggest we be guided by the statements of medical and scientific institutions, such as the American Medical Association (whose expertise in both nutrition and agriculture is questionable) and the National Academy of Sciences.

While prestigious institutions, one must be cautious about embracing them as The Ultimate Authority and realize that in today’s business climate, even they are capable of commercial bias and mistakes. It is quite dangerous to defer our own conclusions to those of entrenched institutions based on assumed authority, especially when the stakes are this high. It is even more difficult when one considers that over 60 countries, including those of the European Union, have banned or seriously restricted the sale of GMO foods. And more difficult yet when one realizes the complete lack of any human trials.

If this seems a bit harsh one need only recall a time when the AMA and many physicians advised patients that there were no ill effects attributable to smoking tobacco and, in fact, saw a proliferation of advertising such as “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” Furthermore, the pages of The New England Journal of Medicine and The Journal of the American Medical Association hosted and profited from many tobacco advertisements for a very, very long time.

As mentioned above, there are many published animal studies – and some claim to prove the safety of GMO food products. Many authors cite a 2011 study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology titled “Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: A literature review,” for example. The lead author was Chelsea Snell, a student at the University of Nottingham at the time of the study. Full text here.

The authors examined “12 long-term studies (of more than 90 days, up to 2 years in duration) and 12 multigenerational studies (from 2 to 5 generations)” and concluded that “Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed.”

Snell et al. summarized each of the 24 animal studies they reviewed, included the original researchers’ main findings and interpretations, and then added their own opinions about how the study designs may have affected the validity of the findings.

Of the 24 studies they reviewed, many reported differences between animals fed GMO foods compared to controls who ate non-GMO varieties. Differences such as elevated metabolic rates and changes in pancreatic, liver and other organ function were common.

Snell et al. respond by reporting experimental design problems with each of the studies that showed differences between GMO and non-GMO fed animals and even with studies that showed no difference between GMO and non-GMO groups. This would suggest the possibility that current (or their chosen) research models are weak and that more and better research need be done. Instead Snell et al. suggest that their review somehow proves the safety of GMO foods. Once again, what we have here can hardly be considered a consensus.

Furthermore, the studies described in the review span only 90 days to two years, were conducted mostly on rats and mice, and do not dispute the position stated in Vermont H.112 Section 1 G that: “There have been no long-term studies in the United States that examine the safety of human consumption of genetically engineered foods.”

On the contrary their findings do support the concerns of Vermonter’s expressed in Section 1B:

“(A) Independent studies in laboratory animals indicate that the ingestion of genetically engineered foods may lead to health problems such as gastrointestinal damage, liver and kidney damage, reproductive problems, immune system interference, and allergic responses.”

Butterworth diminishes and derides the Vermont legislation and subsequent media attention by reducing the issue simply to our desire to be seen as fighting “a battle between brave, concerned citizens and bad big business.”

Yet we know that much of the research done on GMO safety is funded directly or indirectly by agribusinesses who have a vested interest in the outcomes. We know that trade organizations such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association have spent millions of dollars combating state and federal GMO labeling laws and indoctrinating the public with the idea that GMO labeling will create an undue hardship on businesses. That changing labels will cost millions of dollars – costs that will be passed on to consumers. Give it some time, and we’ll even hear that labeling will cost jobs!

Another possible interpretation is that agribusiness stakeholders are worried that once products are labeled as containing GMOs, people may choose not to buy them. Because really, are label changes on consumer products all that uncommon? And expensive? Of course not. But allowing GMO products to be put at a competitive disadvantage by simply telling us what they are – that is just unacceptable to their business interests. So labels be damned.

This, like most debates, is ultimately a question of values; values relevant not just to foods, but to many areas, such as pharmaceuticals, toxic effects of resource extraction and so many more.

Do we ingest (or otherwise consume) things until they are proven dangerous, or do we avoid those things we perceive to be dangerous until it is proven that they are safe.

… and …

In matters of health and nutrition (to name just a few), do we have the right to know?