Full list: Agriculture in the News

Valley News: Small Tunbridge Dairy Farm Stays True to Its Values

 July 8, 2015
By Warren Johnston
Full Article

While growing up in urban New Jersey, Lindsay Harris dreamed of being a farmer.

“When I was young, I was always the happiest when I was with animals or out in the woods,” Harris said recently while checking on the herd of Guernsey cows pastured on the 191-acre Tunbridge farm that she and her partner, Evan Reiss, own.

“Now, I’m living the dream.”

But Harris is not naive. She knows that to keep the dream going for themselves and their two young children, she and Reiss face a long road that traverses too little sleep, not enough money and exhausting hours of physically demanding work.

They’ve done it before on a farm they rented in Hinesburg, Vt., and built it into a successful business with hundreds of customers buying their raw milk and raw dairy products.

“We wanted to own our own place,” Harris said, and they bought their farm on Bicknell Hill Road a couple of years ago, beautiful hilly land that was first cleared in 1790 with a house that dates from a few years later and a huge, aging barn. They named it Mountain Home Farm, and got to work.

They built the new certified dairy and milking parlor in the garage across the road from the house, and every evening and morning, they lead their 10 milkers into the facility, sometimes delaying an occasional vehicle that passes as the cows make their way.

Harris is 40. She has a degree in biology and worked for the state of Vermont a number of years, trying to clean up the water in Lake Champlain, before getting into farming. She and Reiss did their research before starting construction on the dairy, but they didn’t count on the extra $60,000 it would take to make their milking, processing and packaging facility “legal” in the eyes of the USDA.

“Small farmers have to play by the same rule book as huge dairy operations. It doesn’t make sense, and it really makes it difficult for small farmers to make it,” Harris said.

From the start, Harris and Reiss wanted to do thing correctly, to leave as small a footprint as possible, as well as produce superior products.

“We have a different business plan than a conventional dairy. We think a lot about being as natural as possible. We treat our animals with respect and protect things that are in the public good — air and water. … Our cows and pigs are 100 percent grass-fed, and we graze them where there is not a danger of runoff, rotating them to a different pasture every 12 hours,” Harris said, noting that if they can make the “restorative agriculture” business model work, it might become more widely used by small farmers as well as large operations.

“We’re a single-source operation. Everything is grown, produced and packaged here.”

Initially, they made butter and buttermilk to sell — products for which Guernsey milk is well-suited because it has a higher fat content — and gave the skim milk to the pigs. Because of the process they use to separate the cream from the milk, the skim milk retains about 2 or 3 percent butterfat.

The pigs were loving it, but the farm was wasting a valuable product, Harris said.

So Harris and Reiss started making ricotta with the skim milk. “The cheese is fresh and delicious with a rich flavor,” and the pigs still get the whey.

The butter is churned from cultured cream — creme fraiche or European style — which gives it a slight tang. The buttermilk also has a similar tang and a rich, buttery taste.

Therein lies t he struggle between feeding the world and feeding the world well. Large factory farms receive government subsidies, but “small farmers who are practicing restorative agriculture and trying to improve the health of the community and the natural system, don’t receive any subsidies. We’re all poor, and we’re all competing with commercial agriculture. It’s not a level playing field,” Harris said.

“I want people to be thinking about where their food comes from and what they’re paying for. You’re paying for better quality, clean air and water. You’re paying for a public benefit.”

Mountain Home butter, ricotta cheese and buttermilk are available in the Upper Valley at the South Royalton Market and the Chef’s Market in Randolph.

Harris suggests trying the ricotta with fresh tomatoes or making a creamy spread with olive oil as well as the traditional use in lasagna or for stuffing pasta shells.

“I make a really good cheesecake with it too.”

Natural Products Insider: GMO labeling fight heats up on Capitol Hill

By Josh Long
Full Article

The national fight over whether to require labels on genetically engineered (GE) foods has increasingly shifted from the state legislatures to the U.S. Congress.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas, last month introduced modified legislation that would not only preempt states from requiring GE labels, local governments and states would be barred from restricting crops that have been genetically modified, according to the nonprofit Center for Food Safety. Opposing legislation in Congress would create a national mandatory labeling standard for GMOs.

“Increasingly this fight has come to Washington D.C. and now legislatures are battling over whether states will retain the right to label genetically engineered foods,” said Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs with the Center for Food Safety, in a phone interview. “We’ve seen legislation introduced on both sides of the issue.”

Debate on Pompeo Bill

In testimony June 18 before a health subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives, Vermont Assistant Attorney General Todd Daloz urged lawmakers to reject Pompeo’s Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell is charged with implementing and defending Act 120; the Vermont law requires labels on genetically engineered food and takes effect in about a year. But dietary supplements are not subject to the state requirement under a final rule that was adopted by Sorrell’s office.

“If enacted as drafted, H.R. 1599 would have two central, and in my view, negative effects,” Daloz testified, referencing Pompeo’s bill. “The first would be to immediately—upon enactment—cancel existing legislation like Vermont’s Act 120. The second would be to provide only an incomplete federal structure for the labeling of GE foods, and one that lacks any meaningful statutory standards and places much, if not all, of the responsibility for creating the structure in the hands of a federal agency.”

In introducing a version of the bill last year, Pompeo said his legislation affirmed the authority of the FDA to require a label for foods that are considered unsafe and would eliminate the potential for a patchwork of state regulations that could drive up food costs, mislead consumers and burden farmers.

Pompeo’s bill, however, may not have adequate support to get through both chambers of Congress. “This bill faces a really steep climb in the Senate,” said the Center for Food Safety’s O’Neil, “where no Senate Democrat has come out saying they are willing to cosponsor such a preemption bill.”

Vermont Litigation

Only one state in the nation has a GE labeling law that is set to take effect soon: Vermont. That is unless the judiciary finds Act 120 unconstitutional.

A number of food groups including the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) have moved to overturn Act 120 in federal court. In April, a federal judge Christina Reiss denied the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction and indicated she would find constitutional the labeling requirement. The plaintiffs have filed an appeal and recently laid out their arguments for why Act 120 runs afoul of the First Amendment. Still, the initial ruling may have emboldened the states.

“It’s no secret a lot of legislators were waiting to see what happened in Vermont and given the judge’s initial decision, I think that gives state legislators a little more confidence to move forward on this,” O’Neil said.

Supplements and GMO Labels

Whether dietary supplements will be subject to state labeling measures remains to be seen. Under a final rule implementing Act 120, dietary supplements are excluded from the definition of food.

“Our read of the statute was that the Legislature was focused on providing consumers with information about grocery food items and not on the labeling of a tangential category like supplements,” Daloz explained in an emailed statement. “That’s not to say supplements will always be excluded from labeling, but they are currently.”

Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now, a group in favor of GMO labeling, said last year in a phone interview that the “main fight” is not over whether supplements should be labeled.

“People are going into grocery stores and really having no idea what they are feeding their families,” Murphy said. “We believe that people are eating food three times a day. Mothers and families eating their food should know how it’s produced.”

Connecticut and Maine also have passed GE labeling laws that define food broadly, but they don’t take effect unless neighboring states pass similar legislation and it’s unknown whether rules implementing the laws would bring supplements within their scope.

Still, the industry is taking interest in the labeling debate. For instance, the Natural Products Association (NPA) supports a federal solution.

“NPA supports and encourages the voluntary labeling of non GMO foods,” the trade association explains on its website. “NPA believes that consideration of federal law promoting a uniform standard is warranted to avoid separate standards for GMO labeling at the state level.”

WCAX: Milk glut leads to dumping

Jun 22, 2015
By Kyle Midura
Full Article & Video

BURLINGTON, Vt. –  In Vermont, the Northeast, and across the U.S., the answer to the iconic marketing question, “Got Milk?” is yes…  and too much.

The 400 dairy producers of the St. Albans Co-op Creamery increased production by two-percent this year, but now the product is being dumped by the truckload as market saturation is tanking prices.

“Milk is going up and your demand is going down,” said the Co-op’s Tom Gates. Gates says getting some of the value is better than none. The group is converting excess raw farm milk into cheese and other non-perishable dairy products. “And we’re one of just a few plants in the whole Northeast that has that ability to do that, so we’re working with others in the industry to try to maintain as much of the value as we possibly can.”

Thus far, the organization is only dumping skim milk, but that’s a first for the Co-op’s president, who has been with the group for more than three decades. They’re dumping milk in manure pits on farms. It’s a similar story for Massachusetts based Co-op Agri-Mark, which counts 250 Vermont dairy farms among its members.

“The 32 years I’ve been at the Co-op we’ve never had to dump milk before. We’ve always had the processing capacity to handle that milk,” said Agri-Mark’s Doug DiMento.

While the Co-op creamery could not provide an estimate of how many gallons of skim milk have been dumped, Agri-Mark officials put their group’s figure in the hundreds of thousands. They say converting its product is better than being left without a market, and estimate 95-percent of their product is still being shipped and sold despite dumps. “There’s so much milk around that there’s people undercutting other people, other co-ops, other milk handlers with cheaper milk,” DiMento said. “It’s really put the entire industry in quite the tailspin.”

Agri-Mark estimates that producers will receive about $1.57 per gallon which is down substantially compared to last year’s $2.22, especially when you deal by the truck-full.

Consumer Reports: Don’t weaken GMO labeling American consumers have the right—and overwhelmingly want—to know what’s in their food

June 26, 2015
Full Article

At Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, we strongly support labels that give consumers valuable, meaningful information about the products they purchase—whether it’s for food, cars, or any other product.

For more than 20 years, we’ve supported the labeling of genetically engineered foods, also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. And consumers agree with us about GMO labeling. Survey after survey, including our own, has shown that more than 90 percent of consumers want GMO foods to be labeled accordingly. Some 64 countries currently require GMO labeling, and several states, including Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont, have passed legislation requiring GMO labeling.

But legislation currently moving through Congress would bring these and any future efforts to an end by prohibiting GMO labeling requirements at the local, state, and federal level. The misleadingly named Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, introduced by Representative Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) would also make current federal voluntary labeling policy permanent, even though these guidelines have not produced a GMO-labeled product in their 15-year history.

​And that’s not all. A new draft version of this anti-consumer legislation that is being discussed in the House of Representatives is far more sweeping, also barring states and local communities from regulating genetically modified crops in other ways. Several counties in California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington have measures in place that restrict where GMO crops can be grown. The bill would nullify these measures.

Moreover, this new version would also further prevent businesses from creating voluntary labels for non-engineered products that are more stringent than a yet-to-be-determined U.S. Department of Agriculture standard. For example, the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, which now appears on thousands of products, establishes a threshold of GMO contamination (0.9 percent). This legislation, however, could potentially force such​ meaningful non-GMO labeling programs to weaken their standards.

Consumers Union strongly opposes this legislation and has called on lawmakers repeatedly to reject it. In letters to Congress, we have also voiced support for other legislative efforts, such as the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act introduced by Representative Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) that would require genetically engineered foods to be labeled and recognize consumers’ right to know what they’re buying.

And we need your help with GMO labeling. Consumers Union encourages you to make your voice heard and share your support for GMO labeling with your members of Congress. Visit NotInMyFood.org to take action and send Congress the message that you want, and have the right, to know what’s in you food.

Culture: Maine Officially Legalizes Commercial Hemp Cultivation

By Zara Zhi
June 25, 2015
Full Article

A new decree that allows for the cultivation of hemp in Maine is currently in effect after a veto by Gov. Paul LePage was superseded, according to Governing.com.

“I am absolutely thrilled that this is now law,” stated Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea. The veto was overridden by a vote of 135 in favor, 6 opposed and 10 absences on May 12 in the Maine House. The senate also chose to reverse the veto on June 16, by a vote of 28 in favor and 6 opposed.

“This was overwhelmingly overridden,” she added on Monday of the veto. “It got big support in both the House and the Senate. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle really showed their support for it.”

On Monday, Sanderson said the emergency statute would go into effect immediately so that cultivators can plant their seeds as early as possible.

The rule permits planters to buy hemp seeds from any qualified seed source, rather than only certified Canadian producers, as initially presented in the first version of the bill.

When Sanderson first introduced the bill, community members, farmers, organic growers, and agricultural researchers rallied behind the initiative. The measure will open new prospects to farmers and deliver local sourcing for many hemp-made products, according to the representatives.

Hemp fibers have many diverse uses including textile making, paper, insulation, building materials and composites for auto bodies. But hemp is also tainted in controversy because it comes from the same plant as cannabis, which is why it’s still classified as a drug under federal law.

On Feb. 10, during a public hearing on the bill in the State House, Jon Olson of the Maine Farm Bureau testified that the farming of industrial hemp was deliberated at an Aroostook County Farm Bureau meeting and said that farmers believed it would be “value added” crop to add to their rotation.

Ann Gibbs, acting Director of the Animal and Plant Health Division for the Maine Department of Agriculture, was neutral on the bill and stated that hemp is classified as a “drug” under the Federal Controlled Substance Act, and would be difficult to import for commercial use due to the restrictions. The DEA controls any hemp that is grown legally and has only given permission to the state Department of Agriculture or to universities for research so far.

The bill calls for licensing fees that should be “reasonable and necessary to cover the costs of the department” and would be set at the preference of the Maine Commissioner of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Colorado, Kentucky and Vermont have already legalized industrial hemp for cultivation and research.

VT Digger: Ben & Jerry’s agrees to negotiate ‘Milk With Dignity’ agreement

Sarah Olsen
Jun. 21 2015
Full Article

Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream company is negotiating an agreement that would give migrant dairy workers in Vermont higher wages and more time off.

The undocumented workers, most of whom are from Mexico and Guatemala, say Vermont dairy farms require them to work long hours and do not pay fair wages.

Workers from local dairy farms marched in Burlington Saturday to the Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop on Church Street, as part of a campaign to “restore dignity” to dairy farming.

Migrant Justice, a workers rights group, organized the protest in Burlington as part of a nationwide campaign in 16 cities called the “Milk with Dignity Program.” The activists are demanding that Ben & Jerry’s sign a pledge guaranteeing workers minimum wage and time off.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of the company, came to an agreement with Migrant Justice, the nonprofit organization advocating for migrant workers’ rights and justice, on Friday in continuing negotiations with migrant workers.

The migrant workers that participated in the rally Saturday are work on dairy farms in Vermont that supply milk to Ben & Jerry’s. One of the workers, Victor Diez, spoke at the rally and handed a letter to Rob Michalak, global director of social mission at Ben & Jerry’s.

Diez is originally from Chiapas, Mexico, just north of the Guatemalan border and the second largest producer of cacao in Mexico. He has worked in the dairy farming industry for four years and in the Vermont dairy farm industry for three years. He currently works at a dairy farm in Vergennes.

Diez said in Spanish that workers went ahead with the rally to show Ben & Jerry’s that they will be going “all the way to the finish line with an agreement.”

A small group at the rally, including Diez and Brendan O’Neill, the founder of Migrant Justice, went into the scoop shop to hand the letter to Michalak.

“We’re here to leave a letter to encourage you to keep working with us,” Diez said, translated by O’Neill.

The letter, addressed to Jostein Solheim, chief executive officer of Ben & Jerry’s, was signed by 45 representatives of organizations that O’Neill referred to as the “Milk With Dignity Coalition.”

“We understand that many dairy farmers are also facing serious economic challenges and are in need of economic relief,” the authors of the letter wrote. “The Milk with Dignity program rewards those farms that have it right by having corporate participants pay more down the supply chain to both the farmer and the farmworker. We anticipate many farms to enthusiastically support this initiative.”

Back outside, their rally chant changed from “Si, se puede” (Yes, we can) to “Si, se pudo” (Yes, we did). One end goal for Diez is to guarantee Vermont minimum wage for all the state’s dairy farm workers.

Michalak said many of Vermont’s dairy farms pay minimum or higher wages.

Surveys conducted by Migrant Justice and the farmworkers don’t match the company’s assertion.

Diez said workers also need better housing and days off for illness, holidays and vacations.

“We have workers who don’t get a single day off a week,” Diez said.

A lot of the workers supported by the campaign work 12 to 14 hours in a day, according to the letter. Without a single day off, that could be anywhere between 84 and 98 hours in a week.

Following the agreement that was reached on Friday, Michalak said that the rally was not really necessary to get Ben & Jerry’s to continue to work with them in the contract negotiations and that the June 19 agreement was more for Migrant Justice’s benefit as “they probably believe that written commitments are more powerful than verbal commitments.”

“We’ve been working with them,” Michalak said. “I mean we’ve always been working toward social justice and economic justice. I guess it makes sense that Migrant Justice felt that it was necessary for the community to hear the voices of the migrant workers, and I can understand that.”

Michalak said that the rally happened the day after the agreement, and on Monday, June 22, they will still be working out negotiations with Migrant Justice.

Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund: State Raw Milk Legislation Recap


his year has been a productive session for legislation increasing access to raw milk. While there is still resistance to raw milk legislation, opposition has declined overall around the country. With deaths being attributed to the consumption of cheese and ice cream made with pasteurized milk, raw milk opponents’ arguments about food safety aren’t getting the traction they once had.

Five states passed laws positively impacting the ability of consumers to obtain raw milk and raw milk products; they are as follows:

On May 28, Governor Peter Shumlin signed House Bill 484 (HB 484) into law. The bill is a measure that changed a number of Vermont’s agricultural laws including provisions amending the state’s raw milk statutes. Under the existing two-tier system, producers now can sell more raw milk each week (i.e., increased from 280 up to 350 gallons) if they comply with additional requirements on matters such as inspection, registration and testing. Another significant change in the law is that all raw milk producers will no longer have to test their cows annually for tuberculosis and brucellosis; under HB 484 only a one-time negative test or proof of a recent one-time negative test is required.

The tier 2 producers had been required to warn their customers if even one test result showed the total bacteria or coliform count was over the legal limit; if follow-up tests were above the limit, producers were required to stop all sales until they got a test result that was in compliance. Producers with one high somatic cell count test had to not only warn their customers, but also contact a veterinarian to assess the herd and milking procedures. HB 484 does away with the consumer warning; now the Secretary of the Vermont Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets issues a warning if two out of four consecutive monthly tests exceed the limit and has the authority to suspend the producers’ sales when three out of five tests do so.

Since Vermont has a two-year legislative session, a separate bill aiming to expand raw milk sales to retail stores and legalize the sale of other raw dairy products will still be under consideration next year.

Governor Matt Mead signed the Wyoming Food Freedom Act (HB 56) into law on March 3. The new law gives farms, ranches and home kitchens the right to sell any foods, other than meat products, they produce direct to the consumer without any government regulation or inspection. Sales can take place at farms, ranches, private homes, farmers markets and through delivery.

The Food Freedom Act legalizes the sale of any raw dairy product including unaged cheese. The sale of raw cheese that has not been aged at least 60 days is prohibited in interstate commerce but states do have the option of not having any aging requirement in their laws. At this time, Wyoming has the most favorable laws on the sale of raw dairy products in the U.S. A factor in the bill’s passage was the lack of a dairy industry in Wyoming to provide opposition. According to the state, there are only 30 Grade A dairies left in the state; other estimates have the number as low as ten.


There are still ten states that do not allow any sale or distribution of raw milk by statute, regulation or policy. Two of them, Montana and West Virginia, came close to changing their laws in 2015.

Metrowest Daily News: Levin: Agribusiness confuses issues on GMO labeling

By Martin E. Levin
Guest Columnist
May. 16, 2015
Full Article

A federal court has just turned back industry efforts to stop Vermont from enforcing its first-in-the-nation law requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods. Similar labeling legislation is now pending in Massachusetts, and has the support of over 75 percent of the Legislature.

One day after the court decision, a group calling itself the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food pressed the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a bill (H.R. 1599) that would prohibit such labeling in Vermont, Massachusetts, and every other state. The Coalition includes the four large food trade associations that were unsuccessful in the court case, as well as companies such as Monsanto and Dow – each big agrichemical companies at the forefront of developing and marketing genetically engineered seed.

Independent polls have found that 90 percent of consumers want to know which foods on the grocery shelves were the result of genetic modification taking place in biotech labs over the past two decades, rather than traditional agricultural methods developed over hundreds of years. The Coalition asserts that labeling will confuse consumers and cost them more money at the checkout counter. But the confusion being sown is in no small part due to the lengths, and costs, to which labeling opponents go to defeat consumer demand for transparency.

Coalition claims about genetically engineered seed include that they are good for the environment, increase crop yield, and help keep food production costs down. But the Monsanto seed largely responsible for converting over 80 percent of U.S. corn and soy fields to genetically engineered crops was developed to permit the use of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup, even during the growing season. Through genetic manipulation, Monsanto developed corn and soy that could survive glyphosate applications that kill surrounding weeds. The outcome after 20 years of cultivation, as reported by the USGS: Glyphosate use has rocketed from 5,000 to over 80,000 metric tons per year, and glyphosate and its related degradation product now occur widely in the environment. Unsurprisingly, a study published last year in the peer-reviewed journal, Food Chemistry, found high glyphosate and related residues on genetically engineered soybeans, while conventionally and organically grown soybeans had none. Moreover, independent scientific research and reviews have concluded that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, and that glyphosate-based herbicides promote antibiotic resistance.

Independent research has also challenged claims of increased crop yield. For example, one study, published last year in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, analyzed 50 years of yield data for U.S. Midwest corn production and production in comparable corn-growing areas of Western Europe. Western Europe, which has largely rejected the genetic engineering approach promoted in the U.S., had corn yields similar to or slightly higher than the U.S.

Nor do claims of lower cost of production acknowledge the costs to develop and bring a genetically engineered product to market. One study put that cost at $136 million, and this does not even account for the many “false starts” that die in the lab. Seeking to maximize profit in the face of such high R&D costs, agribusiness vigorously defends its patents on its seed. Agribusiness will only “license” farmers to use its genetically engineered seed from year to year, rather than permitting farmers to save seed from one season for reuse in the next. Claims that labeling will cause prices of genetically engineered foods to spike ring hollow when coming from an industry that has been willing to pay over $100 million in the past three years to beat back labeling referenda in a handful of western states.

In light of these and other concerns, what consumers want is something simple – to be told whether foods offered in their grocery stores are part of a production method different in nature from what preceded it for many hundreds of years. Then, they can choose to buy or not. There is nothing confusing about that.

Martin E. Levin, formerly Massachusetts’ chief environmental prosecutor, practices environmental law in Framingham.

Eater: Neil Young’s New Music Video Mocks Starbucks, Monsanto, and GMOs

By Khushbu Shah

Folk legend and environmental activist Neil Young has released the first music video from his anti-GMO concept album, The Monsanto Years, with his band Young and Promise of the Real. The song, titled “Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop,” pokes fun at Starbucks, agrochemical giant Monstanto, and genetically modified organisms.

In the video, Young, while singing lyrics like “I want a cup of coffee, but I don’t want a GMO. I’d like to start my day off, without helping Monsanto,” throws Starbucks cups at the camera alongside members of his backing band, which include Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah. It’s no surprise that the first single focuses on Starbucks. Young announced last last year that he was boycotting the coffee giant because of its association with Monsanto. Time writes that the agrochemical company “lobbied against proposed legislation in Vermont to label GMOs.”

The album — which rails against the billion-dollar GMO business and its corporate supporters — is set to be released at the end of June. Young and his band will go on an (GMO-free) tour this summer, starting in July.

Burlington Free Press: Vermont businesses ride GMO-free ‘megatrend’

Emilie Teresa Stigliani
May 31, 2015
Full Article

After a long scan of the organic-vegetable cooler, Penelope Wall added several items to her cart.

“Oh my gosh!” Wall said. “I’m about to spend $5 on a bag of baby cucumbers.”

She pinched one of the bright green gherkins and added, “But they look really crunchy and I’m excited to eat one.”

Wall picked her way through City Market’s eclectic-but-lightly-stocked produce section on a Sunday afternoon in May. The Burlington mother of two toddlers, who were napping at home, said she tries to shop organic and local. Her reasons include the desire to get the freshest food possible, to support community agriculture and to avoid genetically modified organisms.

Wall’s preference of avoiding GMOs contributes to a market for non-GMO labeled food that’s predicted to reach $264 billion in 2017, according to a 2013 article by FoodNavigator-USA, a publication that covers the North American food and beverage industries.

Allison Weinhagen, community engagement director of Burlington’s City Market, said the coop receives few requests to carry more non-GMO labeled products.

“My guess is that our customers already expect us to have these types of products, which we do, and that some of our vendors are headed in the non-GMO labeling direction already,” she said.

Wall, 35, said she hasn’t done enough research to feel certain that GMOs are harmful, she feels equally uncertain about including them in her family’s diet.

“If it’s easy enough and affordable enough to avoid GMOs, I’d rather not buy them,” she said.

Wall also fits into the results of a national survey, reported by FoodNavigator-USA, of 2,000 U.S. adults. Consumers “most concerned” about GMOs, according to the 2013 survey, were urban middle-class mothers in their mid-30s with young children.

While Wall tries to steer clear of GMOs, she’s not militant.

“I tend to buy organic because it’s non-GMO, but then I’ll buy Cheerios,” Wall said. Her children both have food allergies, and she knows that Cheerios are safe for them to eat. Cheerios claim to be GMO-free but have no official certification.

Wall said she supports a more consistent labeling policy, like the one passed by the Vermont Legislature in 2014. Even though, she considers herself a “pretty well-informed” shopper — she worked for a number of years at Shelburne-based EatingWell Magazine — she feels like it’s hard to know if GMOs are present in a product unless she buys organic. A USDA Organic certification automatically means that a product is free of GMOs.

Gov. Peter Shumlin signed Vermont’s GMO labeling bill into law on May 8, 2014, to the applause of proponents and the threat of litigation by food industry manufacturers. The law, which is written to require products containing GMOs to be labeled as such, is slated to go into effect on July 1, 2016.

As the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association and other industry groups fight Vermont’s GMO-labeling law in advance of its enactment, some small Vermont businesses, as well as the multi-billion-dollar Whole Foods grocery chain, are instead focused on responding to a market demand and embracing GMO-free labeling.

“It’s a growing segment that customers are looking for,” Vermont Retail & Grocers Association President Jim Harrison said during a May 12 interview.

Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture seems to be taking note. The department recently developed a process for voluntary GMO-free certification, according to the Associated Press.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote to U.S. Department of Agriculture employees that this label was spurred by a request from a “leading global company.” In the same letter, Vilsack stated that companies were “lining up to take advantage of this service.”

Whole Foods has publicly pledged to label all food products in its U.S. and Canadian stores by 2018. And some Vermont food businesses, facing the state’s deadline, have already certified their products as non-GMO.

Above and beyond the law

Liz Holtz, owner of Waitsfield-based Liz Lovely, began the process of certifying her cookies as GMO-free in July 2013. Holtz said her decision to certify was unrelated to the passage of Act 120, Vermont’s GMO-labeling bill.

“We were choosing that anyway,” Holtz said.

The certification fit with her vision of responsible business practices. That vision includes offering a range of vegan, gluten-free treats and paying her employees a living wage, at least $13 per hour as set by the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

Vermont’s law does not require labeling for non-GMO products. A grower or manufacturer could prove a product is GMO-free by signing a sworn statement that the food was not knowingly or intentionally produced or contaminated with GMOs.

State Reps. Jim McCullough, D-Williston, and Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, two of the bill’s original sponsors, said the law was written to place the onus on food producers using GMO technology.

McCullough said his rationale was twofold.

“My personal belief is it is the responsibility for the seller/manufacturer to reveal what their food product contains,” McCullough wrote in an email. “It seems silly to me to require a seller/manufacturer to list all the things their product does not contain.”

Weinhagen, City Market community engagement director, said she supports placing the labeling responsibility on those using GMOs.

“It’s a heated topic,” Weinhagen said. “We look forward to more people going through the verification, for sure, but we still support the legislation. And we think that you should say what goes into the product.”

The state’s GMO law says that no additional verification is required for food that is non-GMO certified by an independent organization approved by the Attorney General’s Office.

Holtz chose to work with third-party verifier Non-GMO Project.

The Washington-based nonprofit touts itself as North America’s fastest-growing third party to offer non-GMO verification and labeling. The nonprofit has verified more than 27,000 products and its monarch-butterfly label can be spotted on almost any shelf in Burlington-area grocery stores.

Ben Maniscalco, owner of Montpelier-based Benito’s Hot Sauce, also chose to certify his fiery condiments with the Non-GMO Project. He started the verification process in September 2013 to show customers that he supported GMO labeling guidelines. He now has five products verified with the organization and two more certifications in the works.

Harrison, of Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, noted that non-GMO labeling bears similarities to gluten-free labeling. When consumers took an interest in avoiding gluten, some companies began labeling their products as gluten-free even if it was never even present in the food.

Non-GMO Project Associate Director Courtney Papineau called non-GMO labeling a “megatrend.”

While there a is a limited list of foods the are high-risk for containing GMOs — such as canola, corn and soy — they can be pervasive in manufactured products, Papineau said.

Papineau noted that some products may seem like they’re low risk but actually contain high-risk ingredients. She gave the example of trail mix that is sprayed with GMO canola oil. She pointed out that only labeling high-risk products could leave a gap in information available to the consumer.

“What we are after is transparency,” Papineau said.

Managing ‘red tape’

Liz Lovely had to wait about six month before the company received its first Non-GMO Project Verified label, said Holtz, who added, “The red tape is a nightmare.”

While Non-GMO Project issues the certification, the scientific review of products must be done by one of four approved companies that specialize in auditing and testing for GMOs. There is a bottleneck in the review process, which the Non-GMO Project is trying to address. When Holtz switched to a new reviewer the process sped up, but at double the cost.

The Non-GMO Project offers no help with finding ingredient substitutes, Holtz said, because of confidentiality issues with other companies. Liz Lovely’s regular cream of tartar vendor was able to find a new source that supplied the unmodified ingredient. The GMO-free version cost only a little more than the brand Holtz previously used.

Holtz — whose 18 employees include one dedicated “compliance guy” — also has gluten-free, vegan and kosher certifications. All those certifications take continued work. For example, a rabbi visits the bakery once a month to maintain the kosher certification.

The Non-GMO Project website states that the price of verification depends on how many products are certified and whether they contain ingredients that are high-GMO-risk ingredients such as corn or soy.

Holtz said her company’s Non-GMO Project Verified label cost $5,000, which excludes the fees paid to the reviewing company for its audit and testing. Holtz spent $2,050 for the initial review and an additional $4,390 for continued monitoring. She noted that the number will go up as Liz Lovely adds new products to its line of cookies.

Maniscalco, on the other hand, has tackled the compliance process for his hot sauces on his own.

“I keep all my records. It was a lot of back and forth with the non-GMO guys,” Maniscalco said. “It was not easy to do.”

He noted that his products have a limited number of ingredients, which makes certification easier. For example, Benito’s Local Tang sauce contains six ingredients, if you don’t distinguish between the different kinds of chile peppers.

Maniscalco said that he spends about $3,000 per year on certifications. Although most of his certifications are with Non-GMO Project, the figure includes two certification with USDA Organic.

Harrison, of the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, said it is hard to predict how GMO-free labeling would impact the cost of food.

“There is the cost of the certification, and if you have a high volume of product the cost will be more,” he said referring to the number of different products that one company makes.

Maddie Monty, office manager and policy adviser for Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) of Vermont, said that she doesn’t feel particularly concerned that GMO-free labeling is going to have an impact the price of foods.

“By embracing the labeling,” she said, “companies might get access to a new market that could help them be more profitable.”

So far, Holtz said that her business has absorbed the cost of the Non-GMO Project verification, but the certification comes at a creative cost. Holtz said before testing any recipes with new ingredients, she will run the ingredients by her compliance expert.

“I don’t want to come up with something and love it,” Holtz said, only to find out it won’t work. “It kind of kills the creative process.”

Labeling options abound

Before getting Non-GMO Project Verified, Liz Lovely cookies bore the less-stringent label of Vermont Certified Organic, issued by Vermont Organic Farmers.

Holtz said that the state’s organic certification is good for small businesses that sell their products locally.

Another option is for local producers to focus on complying with the state’s law.

City Market staff, for example, have no plans to pursue voluntary non-GMO labeling, according Weinhagen.

However, the coop will evaluate food production processes in advance of Vermont’s GMO labeling law going into effect, Weinhagen said. Although the products at the coop’s hot bar are exempt for the state law, the items in their prepared foods cooler would fall under regulation.

Holtz said that non-GMO labeling could most benefit businesses hoping to sell to larger markets.

“If you’re looking to expand, it’s going to be forced on you,” Holtz said. She referred to the 2018 GMO labeling deadline set by Whole Foods, which carries her cookies.

Harrison, the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association president, summed it up like this:

“If you’re a specialty food producer and Whole Foods is an important customer to you, you’re going to respond to that.”

Whole Foods spokeswoman Heather McCready stated in an email that the company will accept verifications by third-party auditors including Non-GMO Project and USDA Organic.

Holtz said that she didn’t pursue USDA Organic certification, which automatically means that a product does not contain GMOs, because it’s hard to consistently source organic gluten-free ingredients. She added that purchasing organic products are also cost prohibitive on top of the extra cost of gluten free ingredients.

“I’m afraid we’d be priced out,” Holtz said. The suggested retail price of Liz Lovely’s two-pack cookies is $3.99.

Papineau, of the Non-GMO Project, said that many companies are using their label as a transition to USDA Organic.

“Some products contain both labels,” she said. “I’m fine with that. I think it’s great.”

Hot sauce maker Maniscalco has certified with both voluntary GMO-free programs. He was able to get the USDA Organic certification for products with few ingredients. His Maple Chipotle BBQ rub, for example, contains only Vermont maple sugar and chipotle peppers, which are easy to source organic.

Maniscalco’s ultimate goal is to get USDA Organic certification for all Benito’s products, but he said that’s a difficult proposition for a small business. This would be possible only if he purchased larger ingredient orders and found more refrigeration space to store fresh produce.

Monty, of NOFA Vermont, said that she wants consumers to know that while organic is GMO-free, they are not entirely the same. Organic also means no synthetic fertilizers or prohibited pesticides, among other things.

Still, Monty is happy about the proliferation of food labeling.

“Our biggest concern overall is to support consumers having as much information as they can about their food.”