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Salon: Why America’s fired up about hemp

The once-maligned cannabis plant could herald an agricultural revolution, author Doug Fine tells Salon
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Hemp: It’s not just for health food smoothies and hippie clothing. The unintended victim of the United States’ prohibition on cannabis — it got swept up in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and is now blacklisted by the DEA under the Controlled Substances Act — the plant is beginning to be seen by many as the solution to any number of the country’s problems, with implications ranging from energy to agriculture. Newly liberated (to an extent) by the recently passed Farm Bill, it could be the country’s next billion-dollar industry, journalist Doug Fine told Salon.

It’s one of the few areas on which Fine, who’s previously written books about marijuana legalization and an experiment in off-grid living, can find common ground with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Hemp Bound: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution” is part manifesto, part documentation of the ways in which hemp is being put to use within the U.S. and around the world, and part how-to for would-be cultivators. Fine spoke with Salon about hemp’s former role in U.S. history, the declining stigma against all kinds of cannabis and the people leading the new hemp movement. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Just so everyone’s on the same page, I thought it would be good to start with a working definition of hemp. What are you talking about in the book, and what’s its relationship to marijuana?

Most of the world cultivates hemp today, and the general definition is any variety of the cannabis plant with less than .1 percent THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, can be cultivated for industrial reasons. There is no other similarity between hemp, otherwise known as industrial cannabis, and the psychoactive varieties of the plant, other than the fact that their leaves are shaped similarly. Canada has a 15-year modern hemp industry worth a billion dollars a year, by the way, and growing. And there have been zero cases of confusion between hemp and psychoactive cannabis.

Also, a hemp crop would immediately ruin a psychoactive cannabis crop because for psychoactive cannabis, only females are cultivated, and they’re prima donnas — they’re lovingly manicured over their life cycle. If hemp pollen were to get into those female plants, it would destabilize the psychoactivity, it would dilute it. So that’s why for instance in California, which recently passed hemp cultivation registration, the regions where they’re allowing hemp are totally separate from the famous outdoor cannabis cultivating regions of the Emerald Triangle and the Redwood northern part of the state.

So the U.S. prohibition of industrial cannabis, then, is really all about this perceived connection it has with marijuana?

Yes. The 77 years of hemp prohibition were essentially caused by a typo. When cannabis was effectively criminalized in 1937, under the federal Marijuana Tax Act – another terrible policy which I’ve written about before — hemp was included. Very quickly, the federal government realized what a mistake that was. Already the drug war was shipping jobs offshore. In 1942, just a few years after hemp prohibition began, World War II was breaking out. And the Navy needed something like 40 tons of hemp rigging for each vessel.

And by the way, the cord in the parachute that saved George Bush Sr.’s life in World War II was made of hemp.

So we’d been getting the hemp from the Philippines. But the Japanese captured the Philippines. So in 1942, you can see this on Youtube, the Department of Agriculture made this propaganda film that sounds as though it were produced by your roommate with the lava lamp. It’s called “Hemp for Victory,” and it just sings all the true applications of hemp, it’s a song of praise to it. And it’s just proof of the ridiculousness of cannabis prohibition. This 77-year break that we tried to impose on humanity’s relationship with the plant obviously must come to an end. And when it comes to hemp, it’s really, really good for the economy and the planet that it’s coming to an end.

In your last book, “Too High to Fail,” you make a strong economic case for ending marijuana prohibition, which is still coming up against opposition. Is legalizing hemp any easier, or is stigma still an issue here, too?

Well, it’s even easier with hemp. In February, Congress passed and the president signed the Farm Bill, which included a provision that legalized hemp on the federal level. It’s only for university research to start, but that’s okay. Before they got their hugely growing and very profitable hemp industry going in 1998, the Canadians also did two years of research on the cultivars (which is what you call the strains when you’re talking about hemp — the varieties, essentially). So yeah, it’s a done deal with hemp.

The really interesting thing, so far as hemp is concerned, is that there seems to be a very strong Republican case for it. [Kentucky Senator] Mitch McConnell was a major backer of the provision for hemp cultivation.

Definitely. Kentucky was the traditional leader in a hemp industry that was hugely important to the American economy. The U.S. hemp crop was the pride of the world. Our cultivars were prized. They’re gone now. We have to rebuild them. And it wasn’t just Kentucky. Places like Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois — they all had big hemp industries. Today, North Dakota is one of the leaders in fighting to get hemp back — a very politically conservative state. It’s because they’re looking one inch over the border, and seeing farmers make $300 per acre, which is as much as ten times what they’re making for GMO wheat, corn and soy.

So it’s really a bottom-line thing. In “Hemp Bound,” I talk about the climate change mitigation that’s going to result when hemp is really adopted. But it wouldn’t be adopted on a large scale if it weren’t for the profit that farmers can make today from seed oil. That, in the end, is why Colorado is ahead of federal law. I was at a meeting in Boulder a few weeks ago, on the first day that the Colorado Agriculture Department started issuing permits to farmers for unlimited commercial cultivation of hemp. That’s more than federal law currently allows for, although there are some pending bills in Congress this year to allow federal law to catch up with Colorado. But there’s one very simple reason why Colorado is moving ahead, and that is profits to farmers and money in the tax base.

If the U.S. could re-grow its hemp industry, how much of an economic impact do you see it having, both immediately and maybe in the long term?

I see it having a massive economic impact. Predictions are free, of course. But first of all, let’s talk about on the ground today, in straight dollar figures, just on the hempseed oil. Canadian farmers have built an industry in 15 years that’s going to break a billion dollars this year in earnings. Just for this year. From the seed oil. So it’s already having a huge impact. Long-term, I believe that hemp is going to be a bigger economic boon worldwide than psychoactive cannabis, which is already one of the world’s leading cash crops. And my shorthand explanation for that is: Coors is big, but Exxon Mobil is bigger. And the hemp application that I write about in “Hemp Bound,” that I’m most excited about, and that I preach and pray for at every live event, especially when there’s going to be potential cultivators, processors and investors at the event, is the energy application.

In Europe today, entire communities in places like Austria and Germany are becoming energy independent and fossil fuel independent through a biomass combustion technique called gasification. It’s an anaerobic, high-heat process, and it’s being used on farm waste. You can get the gasification combustion units in the size of an outhouse. They’re affordable. The U.S. Army’s buying a lot of these units too. And farms are selling back to the grid, or in some places like Bellheim, Germany, they’re creating their own community-based grid and putting unemployed people to work running it. So they’re becoming independent of larger grids and becoming independent of petroleum.

I’m urging farmers to make this energy producing application part of their first-generation processing facilities for hemp in the U.S. I think of it as the upside of prohibition. We can now look around the world and see. The Canadians are making tons of money, $300 an acre profit. So if you’re growing 1,000 acres in the prairies of Manitoba or Alberta, that’s $300,000 profit per year. That’s good money. So seed oil. Then there’s fiber applications — we could start building carbon-negative homes using “hempcrete,” which is hemp fiber mixed with lime. And the third asset that really has me excited, as a father, about our climate future, is this fossil-free energy from hemp. If we’re growing these millions of acres in North Dakota, Colorado, Vermont, Kentucky, I think we can really have an impact on worldwide climate change.

How is hemp, used as fuel, different from other forms of biomass?

That’s a great question. So, hemp can be made into ethanol and biodiesel. In fact, in one part of “Hemp Bound,” I actually took a hemp-powered limo ride in this fun, safe limo. So that can be done. But today there aren’t cultivars that are grown specifically for that. I think the first applications we’re going to see for energy are going to be at the power plant rather than in the tank.

To give one example, there is a utility in Kentucky called Patriot Biofuels which is explicitly part of the effort to get hemp back into the soil in Kentucky. As you mentioned, Mitch McConnell, who’s a very conservative key senator, supports it. And what they want to do is plant on marginal soil that has been damaged by tobacco monoculture and/or coal mining. Because hemp has these really incredible phytoremediation, or soil-restoring qualities. It’s even been used to help clean up irradiated soil in Ukraine after the Chernobyl nuclear tragedy. It also has foot-long taproots, which really helps with aeration in the soil and creating that microclimate that soil needs for restorative soil health, and for drought-ravaged places like sub-Saharan Africa, it’s not a very thirsty crop. The first Colorado farmer that planted it last year, Ryan Loflin, said it requires about half the water he’d been using on wheat in previous years. Which means a lot, because his fellow Coloradons are dealing with the Dust Bowl out there, and if they can dryland crop hemp, that’s going to be a big deal. So what the Kentucky utilities want to do is grow this hemp, and use the biomass — through gasification, as we were discussing — to create fossil-fuel-free, carbon friendly energy.

And the second part of your question was how does it compare to other biomass. That’s a really good question. First of all, it produces so much more biomass per acre than corn or soy. So there’s so much available. But I’ve heard some European hemp consultants say that when combusted, it’s close, but it doesn’t necessarily have the total energy capacity producing per unit of some other farm waste. But you don’t produce any other crop in such high volume as you do hemp. And today, the Canadians are just burning it in the field, they’re not doing anything with it. So better to use it for energy, and the sheer volume of it makes it worthwhile as an energy crop.

You also argue that it’s a good alternative because it can disrupt this whole GMO monoculture — is that where that argument is coming from, that it would be something else we could be planting that would have more uses, as opposed to, say, corn?

Yeah. Last July 4th, I watched a fifth-generation Colorado farmer named Michael Bowman displacing a sick cornfield in the conservative part of Colorado with hemp. If it’s going to bring more profits, and be healthier for the soil, we may really see a complete about-face in the way that our food structure is going. And that’s the goal of a lot of hemp producers. John Roulac is a founder of the very profitable and fast-growing hempseed oil company Nutiva. Today he has to only deal with Canadian hemp, and he would really like to see domestic hemp. But his goal is to completely, like you said, reverse the trend of moving toward GMO and change the food structure, because it’s a healthier product; it’s actually more profitable for farmers to cultivate and for business people to invest in.

My own hope for the business model would be that we can not just localize and regionalize the energy grid as we were discussing earlier, but also the business model. I would love to see farmers in a region in the community, let’s say a section of Nebraska, or an area in Indiana (Indiana, by the way, and Tennessee are two more states that have recently legalized hemp). So a huge section of, let’s say Indiana, three counties or whatever, getting together and jointly investing in a processor that renders the seed oil, that renders fiber applications and that third energy component, so that the profits are staying in the region, the food is provided regionally, and the energy spurs an independent grid that frees us from utilities and fossil fuels.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the people you profile in the book: these early adopters of hemp? Were they mostly driven by idealism or by profits?

Another good question. I’d say it’s a combination of those. So I believe Ryan Loflin of Springfield, Colorado — there’ll be statues of him one day in Colorado because he did a very brave thing on his family’s muti-generational, very vast farm. He planted hemp when his family gets federal subsidies on alfalfa and these other kinds of crops. And he did it intentionally; he was trying to show his neighbors there is an alternative to the dust bowl that is out there. I mean really, it looks like “The Grapes of Wrath” out there in the soil. There is an alternative that will make farmers money and be good for the soil, and good for the earth, and for his kids — he has kids, too. It was brave because he could have been raided at any time, as this was before the Farm Bill passed. But also, he did another great thing which is, his point in planting those 50 acres last year was to rebuild seed stock. And there are a number of people in Colorado doing this, so that there will be seed. As I mentioned, there’s a germ problem, the great hemp genetics that we had here in the U.S. are gone. So there’s the bottom-line effort of wanting to make those big profits that Canadians make. Ryan says his father, who’s no liberal, supported his effort because they read the journals, they know what the Canadians are making on their crop.

That said, there is an activism component to hemp. There’s no question hemp is not just a plant and not just an industry, but also a movement. And the hemp brand is kind of healthy righteousness. Now, that may seem like neither here nor there, but it actually has great value. There’s a study that came out that said people’s enthusiasm about hemp, and about what hemp represents, is going to cause them to go out of their way to support it in the marketplace once American-grown hemp starts appearing in your food store, in your clothing store, in your automobile parts.

The analogy that I think of is baking soda that people use as an air freshener and the non-toxic cleaning of their kitchen and whatnot. The fact that there’s this orange box that’s inexpensive, and there’s nothing added to it, just this natural product: that’s key to the baking soda brand. We’re never going to see New Neon Super Anti-Bacterial Baking Soda because that’s off-brand. And that’s why the Canadians have banned genetically modified hemp, even though there is no genetically modified hemp. And the U.S. should do it too. The reason is that “Frankenhemp” is going turn consumers away. I have no problem with the “McHemp” sandwich at a fast-food joint. That’d be great. Just not genetically modified.

One other point on this hemp brand, and hemp being a movement: The people that have been involved in selling hemp have been really brave over the years. One of them is David Bronner, who runs Dr. Bronner’s, that multi-generational soap company that many people first discovered late at night at a party in a friend’s bathroom, with the prophetic prayers and things all over the label. He pulled one ingredient in his grandfather’s recipe, caramel coloring, took it out, and added hemp. And he sued the DEA in the ’90s to be allowed to import hemp. He only pays himself five times more than his lowest-paid employee. Puts olive oil in the soap that comes from orchards that are tended jointly by Israelis and Palestinians. Everything’s organic and fair-traded. Last year he chained himself in a cage in front of the White House with a hemp plant, demanding that American farmers be allowed to cultivate. Which, incidentally, a few months later they were. This is a $54 million, rapidly growing company. This isn’t a dude selling burritos at a Phish show. So that brand, that message of righteousness, is valuable. It actually has big bottom-dollar value. I read a couple university studies that talked about this. People are fired up about hemp, and they’re going help kickstart this industry.

So just one more question: What are the next steps that need to happen to make domestic cultivation viable in the U.S.?

Three things. First off, the U.S. needs to allow full commercial cultivation of hemp. Right now we have the university studies allowed. So what I hope people will do, what I urge people to do, is call their senators and congresspeople and support S359 on the Senate side and HR 525 on the House side, both of which will allow full commercial hemp cultivation. Which Colorado is doing anyway, but let’s get federal law on board. The second thing is, federal regulators must allow the importation of and interstate shipping of hemp seeds. Right now there’s a little bit of foot dragging going on about that. And ideally, the third thing is, for the first few years, encourage farmers via subsidies to cultivate hemp. Europe does this. We need to make our hemp crop competitive right from day one. To be honest, it doesn’t really need that, those subsidies, because it’s so profitable. But the fact that there are $300-per-acre profits by Canadian hemp today doesn’t guarantee that there will be such profits in the future. For that reason the federal government should make it very clear we want farmers to grow this crop. It’s good for the economy, it’s good for the soil, it’s good for national security, it makes us a healthier nation via the seed oil and it frees us from fossil fuels. That’s really what I’d like to see five years from now. Energy, seed oil and fibers all happening with hemp around the nation.


USA Today: Vt. gov says he’ll sign genetically modified food label bill

Terri Hallenbeck, The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press
April 24, 2014
Full Article

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont is expected to become the first state in the nation to require labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms.

On Wednesday, the state House passed a bill, 114-30, that would require the labeling by July 1, 2016. The next step is Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has said he will sign the legislation.

“Our constituents have spoken,” said Rep. Carolyn Partridge, a Democrat from Windham, Vt., and House Agriculture Committee chairwoman. “They feel it’s important to know what’s in their food.” said House Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham.

Genetically modified organisms are plants and animals whose cells have been inserted with a gene from an unrelated species to give them specific characteristics, such as resistance to insects or increase specific nutrients. Genetically engineered plants have been in the food supply since the 1990s, and supporters of the labeling requirement have been fighting since for regulations to notify consumers of their presence.

Food manufacturers say 70% to 80% of packaged food on a typical supermarket’s shelves would need to be labeled. The bill grants the Vermont Attorney General’s Office the job of establishing rules surrounding the labels.

Supporters have said they hope Vermont will lead the way for similar laws across the USA.

“Vermont’s always first,” said Will Allen, an organic farmer from Fairlee, Vt., citing the state’s ban on slavery, passage of civil unions and same-sex marriage as other firsts.

GMO labeling is required in 64 countries, including the European Union, but no U.S. states. Connecticut and Maine have passed labeling laws that would go into effect only when a collection of neighboring states passes similar laws. Vermont lawmakers rejected that route.

Legislation in Vermont seeking to halt the use of genetically modified seeds, to establish a labeling requirement for those seeds and the food they produce and to protect farmers from liability related to GMO seeds dates back more than a decade.

The state anticipates legal trouble. Included in the bill is establishment of a fund of up to $1.5 million to help pay for the state’s defense against a lawsuit. People will be able to contribute voluntarily and any money the state attorney general wins in other court settlements can be added.

“I think this is the right thing to do whether we’re being threatened with a lawsuit or not,” said Rep. Mike Mrowicki, a Democrat from Putney, Vt.

Rep. Anne Donahue, a Republican from Northfield, Vt., said the threat of a lawsuit gave her pause but that her constituents seem to support that risk. She voted for the bill.

About Vermont’s GMO labeling bill

• What the bill does: Requires food manufacturers to label many products containing genetically modified organisms that are sold in Vermont starting July 1, 2016. Meat, dairy, liquor and prepared food sold in restaurants are exempt from labeling.

What the label will say: The bill offers three options for wording: “partially produced with genetic engineering,” “may be produced with genetic engineering,” or “produced with genetic engineering.”

How long this bill has been in the works: House 112 was introduced in the Vermont House in January 2013 and passed the House on May 10, 99-42, just before the state Legislature adjourned for the year. The bill was introduced Jan. 7 in the Vermont Senate when the Legislature reconvened. The Senate Agriculture and Judiciary committees reworked the bill. The revised version passed the Senate on April 16, 28-2. The House concurred with the Senate’s changes with Wednesday’s 114-30 vote. The bill goes to Gov. Peter Shumlin to be signed into law sometime in the next week or so.

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Burlington Free Press: How GMO labeling came to pass in Vermont

By Terri Hallenbeck
April 27, 2014
Full Article

Sen. Bobby Starr gives little thought to whether there are any genetically modified organisms in the food he eats. The retired Northeast Kingdom truck driver rarely is swayed when organizations blitz legislators about a cause. As chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he came to the Statehouse in January dubious of a bill that would require labeling of foods that contain GMOs.

But by mid-February, Starr’s committee had voted out a bill, and he was a supporter. That bill is on the way to the Governor’s Office to become law, moving Vermont in place to become the first state to require labeling.

Along the way, Starr and his fellow legislators were bombarded with phone calls, emails and postcards urging them to pass the bill. Veteran lawmakers from Derby to Bennington, Georgia to Brattleboro who typically are unimpressed by the deluge of rote form letters they receive for various causes found that these messages came from real people they knew in their communities.

“What it came down to is, the people I represent wanted it,” said Starr, a Democrat who represents relatively conservative Essex and Orleans counties. “In the end I said, ‘Well, individual rights are more important than an industry’s rights.'”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, a Democrat from also relatively conservative Bennington, said he was driving down a back road near his house when he saw a sign calling for GMO labeling. “I said, ‘Boy this is real. They want this.'”

Despite the threat of a lawsuit hanging over their heads from food manufacturers, key lawmakers went from skeptical to sold on a labeling law within months because a well-organized, well-funded and seasoned group of supporters launched one of the biggest grassroots efforts the state has seen.

How’d they do it?

A combination of factors came together to take the labeling bill to the finish line, said Dave Rogers, policy director at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, who was among those working for the bill. Luck helped, he said, but so did an unrelenting group effort, extensive use of social media that has changed the speed with which causes spread, and Vermont’s two decades of experience in resisting the use of genetic engineering in agriculture.

“We have like a 20-year history of working on these issues,” Rogers said. “We have a whole population of educated activists.”

A 2012 Statehouse public hearing about the GMO labeling issue offered a hint of what was to come. Some 300 people crowded into the House chamber. All of those testifying spoke in favor of labeling. The fervor brewing that night had been steeping for more than a decade.

Opposition to GMOs in Vermont dates back to the earliest days of the process, which began producing crops in the 1990s. In 2003, 37 Vermont towns passed resolutions at town meeting that demanded the labeling of genetically modified foods.

The next year, lawmakers passed a first-in the-nation bill requiring that GMO seeds be labeled — a law that apparently has never been enforced. Amy Shollenberger, a lobbyist hired by the Vermont Right to Know Coalition who has been working on GMO issues for more than a decade, noted that the 2004 bill passed the Legislature 10 years to the day from when the Senate took its vote this month on the food-labeling bill.

In 2006, Gov. Jim Douglas vetoed a bill that would have made seed manufacturers liable for damages from genetically modified seeds that drift onto organic farms.

Although little came from some of those efforts, the sentiment behind them never died.

After labeling legislation failed to move in 2011, Will Allen, manager of Cedar Circle Farm and Education Center in Thetford, said he realized Vermont needed a more refined bill similar to those that were then in the works in California and Washington. In 2012, he pulled together four groups to form the Vermont Right to Know Coalition to work on passing a labeling bill.

Those groups — Cedar Circle Farm, NOFA, Vermont Public Interest Research Group and Rural Vermont — have stuck together for three years. Unlike many such coalitions, Allen said, this one worked.

“It’s not that we didn’t have disagreements,” Allen said, but, “I think everybody believed we could do it.”

Rep. Kate Webb, a Shelburne Democrat, introduced a new labeling bill in 2012, already well into the second year of a biennium. The bill had no chance of passing the Legislature, but supporters were undaunted. “All we’re doing is seeing if this thing flies,” Allen said of the late-session strategy.

That bill started taking flight a year later. Allen’s coalition had a lot to do with getting the measure off the ground.

With help from friends

All the members of the Vermont Right to Know Coalition had experience on the issue. Each had extensive and varied membership lists that provided names of potential supporters across Vermont. They had money, too, thanks in part to national organizations that saw Vermont as a foothold for the GMO-labeling movement across the country.

Allen said the coalition took in $750,000 to $1 million, about half from in-state and half from outside supporters, which included Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, the Organic Consumers’ Fund and Mercola Corp.

That money helped pay for newspaper advertisements across Vermont and for legal and scientific expertise to help persuade Vermont lawmakers. Those efforts largely were behind-the-scenes. Vermont advocates discouraged national groups from swooping in with the kind of media blitz often used in other states, said Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden.

“We told the national groups not to do TV ads, that it would backfire,” he said.

Those national groups might be back to help with the cause if Vermont is sued regarding the labeling law.

Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, said in a statement after the House voted last week to send the bill to the governor, “If Vermont is sued, we intend to use all the resources at our disposal to support Vermont in its groundbreaking effort.”

Targeting messages

Meanwhile, another member of the coalition, VPIRG, launched the organization’s biggest summer campaign ever last year, sending teams of young activists to knock on doors in every Vermont town and to sign people up as supporters of GMO labeling, Executive Director Paul Burns said. He estimated VPIRG spent $500,000 this year and last year on GMO-labeling efforts.

VPIRG’s summer campaign came right after the 2013 legislative session, when the House passed a GMO labeling bill in the final hours, leaving the measure pending for the Senate when lawmakers returned in January. Burns knew his crew could focus efforts on winning over just 30 senators, zeroing in particularly on key players such as Starr and Sears, chairmen of two committees that would consider the measure.

“The opportunity for impact was particularly great,” Burns said. With experience lobbying in the Statehouse on other matters over the years, Burns’ organization also knew the personalities of senators. In trying to reach Sears, Burns said, “We knew he responded to a high level of contact. We tried to get him personal letters, phone calls.”

The door-knockers collected 30,000 signatures from those who agreed that people should know what is in their food, Burns said. Those names went into a database of supporters who could be called on later. VPIRG carefully sorted postcards from Vermonters urging support for the bill and sent the cards to the corresponding legislators.

All the cards, phone calls and emails had an impact, because many of the people behind them were constituents whom legislators knew and who were genuinely enthusiastic for GMO labeling. Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, said, “A bunch of people I know signed onto it. It is important to real constituents.”

By March of this year, two separate polls indicated that Vermonters are keen on GMO labeling. A Castleton Polling Institute poll conducted for VTDigger.org last month showed 79 percent of respondents support a labeling law.

A Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont poll conducted at about the same time showed 90 percent supported the labeling of GMO foods, and 80 percent supported a law requiring labeling, said center Director Dr. Jane Kolodinsky. She said she was confident the poll asked the questions as neutrally as possible, though she acknowledged the term “genetically modified” has a negative sound to it.

Legal advice

In the labeling bill that’s headed to the governor’s desk, legislators cited the conflicting studies as a reason to offer consumer labels.

“There is a lack of consensus regarding the validity of the research and science surrounding the safety of 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,” the bill states.

Lawmakers were provided information about some of that conflicting research by a team from Vermont Law School’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, which worked pro bono for VPIRG. Legal advice from the center and others helped bolster legislators’ confidence that a lawsuit might be winnable, said Sears, the Judiciary Committee chairman.

“We shared our conclusion that we think this bill is constitutional,” said Laura Murphy, the clinic’s associate director and an assistant professor at the law school. Law students working under her guidance pointed to court decisions where labeling laws, such as New York City’s calorie label requirement, were upheld.

That allowed Sears and others to have greater faith that perhaps Vermont’s GMO-labeling bill would have a better fate than the state’s law that required milk containing bovine growth hormones to be labeled. That law was ruled unconstitutional in 1996.

Sears said he went into the debate supportive of labeling but wanting protection from a lawsuit. “Getting over that hurdle was difficult for me,” Sears said.

Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, said when supporters met with Sears in December, he wanted a labeling bill to include a trigger, by which the law would take effect only if other states passed similar laws. Connecticut and Maine have laws with such triggers, and it was something Vermont advocates opposed as close to meaningless.

“He was absolutely adamant about a multi-state trigger,” Stander said of Sears. “He’s an example of a person who has moved on this. He began to understand that the grounds of the bill are strong.”

The Vermont Right to Know coalition also hired Emord and Associates, a Washington law firm, to evaluate the bill, giving legislators another measure of confidence that it might survive legal challenge. “It had an impact,” Allen said.

Opposition quiet

Opponents of labeling, meanwhile, were uncharacteristically quiet throughout the legislative debate. Food manufacturers and the biotechnology industry testified against the bill but never mounted the same kind of sizable lobbying and advertising effort they did to kill a similar effort in New Hampshire, or to defeat public votes in California and Washington.

“We weren’t able to get traction,” said Karen Batra, communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which instead supports pending federal legislation that would require labeling of GMO foods nationally if the FDA determines there is a health or safety risk. “We had the numbers against us in the Legislature. It was a priority with Democrats.”

The mild tone of the opposition surprised proponents of the bill. “One theory out there is they want to fight it in court. It’s been a mystery. I’m sure there’s a strategy to it,” said Shollenberger, the Montpelier lobbyist who was hired by the coalition this year to help with the campaign.

Batra said she was unable to comment about whether her organization or its members would sue Vermont regarding the law. Laggis, the organization’s Vermont lobbyist, said she expects any lawsuit would come from the food producers rather than from the biotechnology industry.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association responded to a request for comment with a statement, which said in part, “As we continue to evaluate the impacts of HB 112, we will make a determination about whether litigation is the appropriate response to this misguided legislation.”

The association argued that genetically modified crops use less water and fewer pesticides and reduce crop prices by 15-30 percent. “Consumers who prefer to avoid GM ingredients have the option to choose from an array of products already in the marketplace labeled ‘certified organic.’ The government therefore has no compelling interest in warning consumers about foods containing GM ingredients, making HB 112’s legality suspect at best,” the grocers group said in the statement

The legislation has critics in Vermont’s food network, too. Kim Crosby, owner of Vermont Roots, a specialty food producer based in Rutland, said of the labeling bill, “I’m very sad it passed. I really feel they did not do the research.”

Crosby said she believes activists too easily influenced people into thinking that labeling is needed. “I’m still flabbergasted. I can’t believe they got that influence,” she said.

Crosby said the law will create uncertainty for her and for other food producers as they wait to see what the Attorney General’s Office decides on the details of what has to be labeled and how they have to go about proving whether a product is GMO-free. She’s wondering whether she has to prove that products that contain no soy, corn, canola or rape seed — the ingredients commonly containing GMOs — are GMO-free.

“There’s just so many questions surrounding this,” Crosby said. “This could affect a lot of products.”

Contact Terri Hallenbeck at 999-9994 or thallenbeck@freepressmedia.com.

GMO labeling details

Gov. Peter Shumlin is expected to sign a bill as early as this week that could make the state the first to require food manufacturers to label products that contain genetically modified organisms. Here’s a look at some of the details:

• What are GMOs: Genetically modified organisms are plants and animals whose cells have been inserted with a gene from an unrelated species in order to take on specific characteristics, such as resistance to insects or an increase in specific nutrients. Food from genetically engineered plants has been in the food supply since the 1990s.

• Foods commonly containing GMOs: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 94 percent of cotton, 93 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of corn planted in the U.S. are genetically modified. Those are commonly found in foods such as soups, sauces, mayonnaise, salad dressings, cereals, breads and snack foods. Certified organic products are not allowed to contain GMOs.

• When labeling would start in Vermont: July 1, 2016, after the Attorney General’s Office finalizes specifics.

• How labels would be worded: The bill offers three wording options subject to modifcations by the Attorney General’s Office: “partially produced with genetic engineering,” “may be produced with genetic engineering,” or “produced with genetic engineering.” Supporters say Vermont’s label would be unlike those in the European Union, which are included in the list of ingredients, because in the U.S. the nutrition label is under federal guidelines.

• Exemptions: Food served in restaurants, liquor, meat and dairy products would be exempt from labeling. Meat is regulated by the federal government. Authors of the bill argue that dairy products made from animals that eat genetically modified food are not themselves genetically modified. Liquor is not considered food. Restaurants are exempt because authors of the bill said they were focusing on foods where consumers routinely see labels.

• Use of the word “natural:” No foods sold in Vermont after July 2016 that contain GMOs may be labeled natural.

• Possibility of a lawsuit: Attorney General Bill Sorrell has said Vermont is likely to be sued by food manufacturers if the state becomes the first to require labeling. If the state loses, he estimated the cost at $5 million to $8 million. The bill establishes a fund to which people may voluntarily contribute and which will receive money the state receives from other legal settlements that are not otherwise directed in the state budget, but would otherwise be funded by the state budget.

• Elsewhere: 64 countries, including the European Union, Australia, Japan and China, require labeling of GMO foods. No other U.S. states do. Connecticut passed a law in 2013 that would require labeling if at least four neighboring states with a combined population of 20 million pass similar laws. Maine passed a labeling law this year that would require labeling once five neighboring states, including New Hampshire, pass similar laws.


Raw Milk Delivery Bill Passes House

On Friday, April 25, 2014 the Vermont House easily passed S.70, the raw milk delivery to farmers markets’ bill, on a voice vote. The House agreed to support it with amendments that improved upon what the Senate originally passed. More information about what improvements S.70 would make to the raw milk law on this page.

Pictured: Rep. John Bartholomew from Hartland presenting S.70 on the floor of the House on Friday 4-25-14. Rep. Teo Zagar, from Barnard, also a raw milk supporter, listens in the foreground.


09/20 18th Annual Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference

Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center

Keynote speaker will be Donna Carpenter, President of Burton Snowboards.  Over three decades, Donna has played a critical role in growing Burton from a once-small factory in a Vermont barn, to a thriving international powerhouse. 

The Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference enjoys a long tradition of bringing women together from all corners of Vermont to explore career opportunities, sharpen business skills and expand professional networks.  The conference draws hundreds of women for a full day of workshops tailored to meet a range of talents and skill levels.   

In the interest of making the conference accessible to all, there is no charge for registration or for pre-arranged child care.  More information atwww.leahy.senate.gov.


Huffington Post: Vermont Lawmakers Pass GMO Labeling Bill; Governor Expected To Sign

By DAVE GRAM and LISA RATHKE
Full Article & Video

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont lawmakers have passed the country’s first state bill to require the labeling of genetically modified foods, underscoring a division between powerful lobbyists for the U.S. food industry and an American public that overwhelmingly says it approves of the idea.

The Vermont House approved the measure Wednesday evening, about a week after the state Senate, and Gov. Peter Shumlin said he plans to sign it. The requirements would take effect July 1, 2016, giving food producers time to comply.

Shumlin praised the vote. “I am proud of Vermont for being the first state in the nation to ensure that Vermonters will know what is in their food,” he said in a statement.

Genetically modified organisms — often used in crop plants — have been changed at their genetic roots to be resistant to insects, germs or herbicides. The development in Vermont is important because it now puts the U.S. on the map of governments taking a stance against a practice that has led to bountiful crops and food production but has stirred concerns about the dominance of big agribusiness and the potential for unforeseen effects on the natural environment. Some scientists and activists worry about potential effects on soil health and pollination of neighboring crops.

Twenty-nine other states have proposed bills this year and last to require genetically modified organism — or GMO — labeling, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Two other New England states have passed laws to require GMO labeling, but the legislation takes effect only when neighboring states also approve the requirement. They are Maine and Connecticut; neither neighbor Vermont.

The European Union already has restricted the regulation, labeling and sale of GMO foods. Several credible polls have found that Americans overwhelmingly favor the notion of labeling genetically modified foods. Organic farmers and others are praising Vermont’s move, while the Washington, D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food producers, called it a step in the wrong direction.

As farmers, Katie Spring and her husband are proud of how they grow their greens, carrots, potatoes, peppers and herbs and raise their chickens and pigs at their Worcester, Vt., farm and are willing to answer questions from customers. As eaters, Spring feels like she and her customers have the right to know what’s in their food, whether it’s saturated fat or genetically modified organisms, which they don’t use on their farm.

But the industry is opposed.

The association is disappointed that Vermont is going at it alone and had hoped for a regional approach. Trying to have 50 different state rules about what goes on food packaging “gets very costly, very confusing and very difficult for the entire food industry to comply with,” said the association’s president, Jim Harrison.

But others are praising Vermont as a leader, even though they expect the law to spark lawsuits. The bill includes a $1.5 million fund to be used to implement the law and provide legal defense against lawsuits expected to be brought by food and biotech industries.

“Every Vermonter has a right to know what is in their food,” said Shap Smith, speaker of the Vermont House. “Genetically engineered foods potentially pose risks to human health and the environment. I am proud to be the first state in the nation to recognize that people deserve to know whether the food they consume is genetically modified or engineered.”

The Vermont legislation says there is a lack of consensus among scientific studies on the safety of genetically modified foods, and no long-term epidemiological studies in the United States examining their effects. Genetically modified foods “potentially pose risks to health, safety, agriculture, and the environment,” the legislation says.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association is urging policymakers to support federal legislation that would require a label on foods containing such ingredients if the FDA finds there is a health or safety risk. But many farmers see it as a David-vs.-Goliath victory.

“This vote is a reflection of years of work from a strong grassroots base of Vermonters who take their food and food sovereignty seriously and do not take kindly to corporate bullies,” Will Allen, manager of Cedar Circle Farm in Thetford, said in a statement Wednesday after the House approved the bill.


VT Digger: Vermont will be first state in nation to require GMO labeling

John Herrick
Apr. 23 2014
Full Article

Vermont will likely be the first state in the nation to require food manufacturers to label products containing genetically modified organisms.

Gov. Peter Shumlin said Wednesday he will sign Vermont’s GMO labeling bill into law. His announcement came just minutes after the House gave H.112 final legislative approval by a 114-30 vote.

“I am proud of Vermont for being the first state in the nation to ensure that Vermonters will know what is in their food,” Shumlin said in a statement. “Vermont has led the local food movement that is better connecting people nationwide with the food they eat.”

The bill would take effect July 1, 2016. Other states have labeling laws that go into effect when neighboring states pass similar policies.

Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, has been pushing for GMO labeling for much of his career in the state Legislature. Zuckerman was first elected to the House in 1996.

“Vermont has now put a stake in the sand around food transparency, and it may well help create that across the country, much as we did with marriage equality and other historic measures,” Zuckerman said.

There will be challenges ahead, he said.

“There is no doubt that there is a risk of a legal challenge by the food manufacturers. And my hope that they would rather comply with people’s wishes rather than hide behind legal arguments to keep their food opaque,” Zuckerman said. “To me food transparency is as important as government transparency.”

House Speaker Shap Smith said in a statement: “Every Vermonter has a right to know what is in their food. Genetically engineered foods potentially pose risks to human health and the environment. I am proud to be the first state in the nation to recognize that people deserve to know whether the food they consume is genetically modified or engineered.”

The potential for litigation was among the top concern lawmakers opposing the bill raised on Wednesday. Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who anticipates a lawsuit, estimated the cost of litigation at $1 million if the state were to win. A loss would cost $5 million or more.

That’s why the bill sets up a $1.5 million special fund reserved for defending the state in court. This money would be raised from state appropriations, private donations and settlement proceeds.

The Vermont Attorney General has defended two high profile laws passed by the Legislature that have been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, including a law restricting campaign contributions and another statute that restricted the resale of doctors’ prescription records. Both state statutes, the court ruled, violated the First Amendment.

The majority of commodity crops sold in the U.S. are genetically engineered. Corn, soybeans and cotton used in many packaged snack foods, sweeteners and cereals contain genetically modified organisms.

The biotechnology industry, which manufactures genetically engineered food products, opposes Vermont’s legislation.

But Daniel Barlow, a lobbyist for the trade group Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, said the bill will give Vermont businesses and retailers a competitive advantage in the region.

“Once Vermont’s known as a state where our food is labeled, people from New Hampshire, people from New York and people from Massachusetts will come here to shop for their groceries,” Barlow said. “Because they know that when they go in the grocery store they are going to have more information here than they will back home.”

Scientists disagree on whether consuming genetically engineered food products is harmful to human health, but proponents of the initiative say it’s about consumer information. Environmentalists point out that genetically engineered crops allow for heavy application of weed killers, and U.S. farmers this year are using more herbicides to kill off herbicide-resistant “superweeds.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is pushing for federal labeling reform, congratulated the Vermont Legislature on Wednesday.

“I am very proud our small state stood up to Monsanto and other multi-national food conglomerates and is taking the lead in a movement to allow the people of our country to know what is in the food that they eat,” Sanders said in a statement.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 25 states have introduced GMO labeling bills this year.

“I do think that this is a model that other states can look to in passing other legislation,” said Falko Schilling, a lobbyist for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “This is really a start to a much larger movement across the country.”

Animal products would not be covered by the legislation. But the Vermont Attorney General’s Office will report back to lawmakers next session on whether to require dairy products to be labeled.

A VTDigger/Castleton Polling Institute poll shows that 79 percent of Vermonters support GMO labeling.


The Bridge: The GMO Labeling Bill: Vermont Won’t Wait

By Amy Brooks Thornton
4/17/14
Full Article

Vermont has passed historic GMO (genetically modified organisms) labeling legislation—the nation’s first GMO labeling law to be effective without the requisite that other states pass similar legislation. This “Right to Know” law, passed by 26 to 2 votes, requires food producers to state on food labels or, in the case of unwrapped produce, in bins or on shelving, whether food products contain GMOs or were produced using genetic engineering.

On April 16, the Vermont Senate approved the legislation with amendments to the House of Representatives’ version and will returning it to the House for approval of the proposed changes. If the House concurs, the law heads to Gov. Peter Shumlin, who is likely to sign the bill.

Genetically engineered foods defined and argued

As defined by the World Health Organization, genetically modified foods are “derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.” Although most genetically modified foods are derived from plants, development of foods from genetically engineered microorganisms and animals is likely.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, genetically engineered crops, including corn, cotton and soybeans, are grown on about half of the 169 million acres of US cropland. Topping the list of genetically engineered vegetables are corn, soy, zucchini, alfalfa, canola and, making up half of the U.S. sugar production, sugar beets. Eighty percent of processed foods include genetically modified ingredients.

Genetically modified food opponents argue that genetic engineering of food may interfere with environmental and human natural biological processes, alter or decrease naturally existing nutritional value in food and ultimately be unethical. Advocates contend that genetic engineering of food can increase nutritional value and crop production and create more weather and insect resilient plants.

“Whether the science is good or bad is not the question,” said Sen. Joe Benning, R- Caledonia. “The question is, does the consumer have the right to know?”

Vermonters want the right to know

According to Washington County Republican Sen. Bill Doyle’s Town Meeting Day survey, 76 percent of Vermonters who responded voted that food products sold in Vermont produced with genetic engineering should be labeled. Fifteen percent disapproved, and nine percent were undecided.

Vermont’s “Right to Know” bill, H.112, strives to empower the consumer “to make informed decisions regarding the potential health effects of food they purchase … the environmental impacts of their food,” and “disclose factual information and protect religious practices.”

Should there be a dairy exemption?

Should milk and products made primarily with milk, such as plain yogurt, butter and cheese,  be exempt from GMO labeling? If cows are fed corn, and the majority of corn grown in the United States is genetically engineered, there’s a good chance GMOs will be in your morning coffee—if you drink it with half and half.

Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, explains the complexity surrounding labeling dairy and meat. Strict federal labeling laws for dairy and meat already exist, but they do not require label information on genetically engineered feed given to the animals. The state of Vermont may not be able to override federal law due to federal preemption—when the federal government can invalidate a conflicting state law.

Federal law bars GMO labeling of dairy. But, because the Legislature wants to be sure not to appear to be creating legislation favoring Vermont’s dairy industry, the Right to Know legislation includes a study under the Office of the Attorney General. The study, due by Jan. 15, 2015, will recommend whether or not milk and products made primarily with milk should be labeled and the legal basis for the recommendation.

‘No’ to the trigger mechanism

And then there’s the issue of neighborly collaboration. Vermont may be the first state to approve a Right to Know GMO labeling law without a “trigger mechanism,” which would put the law’s implementation on hold until neighboring states follow suit. Maine and Connecticut have already approved GMO labeling legislation, but these include triggers. The rationale of waiting is that if states collectively passed GMO labeling laws, they would be able to pool resources to defend themselves against almost certain lawsuits from food associations, such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

But Sen. Zuckerman believes that a food association could sue one state, compelling that state to defend itself alone without neighborhood collaboration. He doesn’t like the idea of passing a law that can’t be put into effect.

“The idea of passing with a trigger was, at best, passing the buck; at worst, duping our voters,” Zuckerman said. It’s “giving people a pipe dream. We either believe we have the evidence or we don’t. Let’s do it.”

Vermont may decide to move forward alone. Supporting the House decision not to wait for other states, the Senate approved a new date of July 1, 2016, for the law to become effective whether or not other states join in.

Funding our legal defense

To help alleviate the cost of legal defense against potential litigation from food associations, and hopefully reduce the burden to Vermont taxpayers, the Senate created a legal fund with a goal of $1.5 million. The attorney general can also use the fund to implement the legislation.

Monies for the fund can come from three places: gifts from individuals and public and private organizations, which is standard operating procedure for such special funds; excess monies from pending suits in the attorney general’s office; and, possibly, the 2016 state budget. If the fund does not reach $1.5 million by end of Fiscal Year 2015, the attorney general will make a budget request for funds to cover the gap.

However, Zuckerman doesn’t think the state will have to kick in. “I am extremely confident we will have $1.5 million in the fund,” he said. “There are people and organizations all across this country who would … be willing to help.”

Industry and consumer cost

Legal issues aside, will the industry pass the cost of labeling onto the consumer, increasing food prices? The Washington State Academy of Sciences, in its report Labeling of Foods Containing Genetically Modified Ingredients, found that the direct costs of mandatory labeling were notable.


04/23 Breaking News: GMO Bill Goes to Governor!

State House Applause04/23: Vermont legislature passes the nation’s first “no strings attached” GMO labeling bill! The House of Representatives voted 114 to 30 to concur with the Senate’s version of H.112, and the bill now heads to Governor Shumlin’s desk for his signature. See how your representative voted here.  More details on this page.

 

 


04/23: Raw Milk Delivery Bill (S.70) Heads to the House Floor

The House Agriculture Committee voted 4/22 to pass S.70 with amendments and send it to the floor of the House on Thursday, 4/24. You can read the Committee’s amended version of S.70 here.