Full list: Agriculture in the News

NPR: Why Some States Want To Legalize Raw Milk Sales

February 20, 2015
By Abby Wendle
Full Article

The federal government banned the sale of raw milk across state lines nearly three decades ago because it poses a threat to public health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association all strongly advise people not to drink it.

But individual states still control raw milk sales within their borders. And despite the health warnings, some Midwestern states have recently proposed legalizing raw milk sales to impose strict regulations on the risky — and growing — market.

Raw milk has become popular in recent years as part of the local food movement: An estimated 3 percent of the population drinks at least one glass a week. Many of its fans are fiercely passionate about what they see as its benefits. They say they buy raw milk because it doesn’t contain the growth hormone rGBH, they like the taste, and they enjoy having a direct connection to the food they eat.

“I like having a relationship with the people who are producing the food I put in my body,” says Holly Stovall, a raw milk consumer and advocate from Macomb, Ill.

But raw milk is particularly fertile for germs. By definition, raw milk is not pasteurized — the process of heating milk to 161 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds to kill harmful bacteria like salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter.

Dr. Robert Tauxe, the deputy director of the foodborne, waterborne and environmental disease division at the CDC, says that children, the elderly and pregnant women are most at risk. And no one is immune.

But warnings from federal health regulators haven’t dissuaded those determined to drink it.

Bob Ehart, senior policy and science adviser at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, has been tracking raw milk policy in all 50 states for the past decade. He says more and more states are legalizing its sale.

According to NASDA’s most recent survey, conducted in 2011, raw milk sales are legal in 30 states, with a variety of restrictions on how it can be sold. Twelve — including California, Pennsylvania and Utah — allow raw milk sales in retail stores. In Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska, customers have to go to the farm to buy it. And in Colorado, consumers enter into a legal contract with the farmer in what’s called a cow-share — a CSA-style operation in which consumers buy a share of a cow in exchange for raw milk.

But NASDA’s Ehart suggests some states may not be legalizing raw milk sales to condone it. Rather, he says legalization may give public health agencies the power to regulate a market that might otherwise exist underground.

“Some would say that it would be worse if there’s nothing on the books that allows the agency to do anything,” Ehart says. “This at least allows them to do something if there’s an exposure level that affects public health.”

The battle over raw milk regulation is raging in Illinois. Despite being illegal, raw milk sales in the state have grown. Dozens of dairies now supply nearly a half-million customers.

Joe Zanger’s three Guernsey cows produce up to 30 gallons of raw milk a day. For the past few years, he’s been selling the unpasteurized stuff by the gallon, in glass jars, to a growing number of customers living in Quincy, Ill., the city down the road from his dairy.

Zanger says he earns a few hundred dollars a week from this side business — enough to pay for animal feed, vet bills and milking barn maintenance. He believes that one day, it could turn into a profitable venture.

“This is something that I can maybe grow a little bit, if I pick up more customers and buy more cows and just keep recycling that money” into the business, he says.

When Illinois became aware of the growing market, the health department proposed rules that would technically legalize raw milk, but impose strict regulations on the industry. Similar to other states in the region, sales would be limited to the farm.

Farmers would also be required to place a warning label on the product, sell it within five days of milking, and keep records of whom they sell to. By keeping track of where raw milk flows, public health officials say they’ll be able to more effectively respond to outbreaks, if they happen. But farmers complain it’s an unnecessary headache.

When it comes to the milking operation, the proposed rules mandate that all farmers keep their dairy cows “free from dirt” and routinely have their milk tested for harmful bacteria. Farmers would also have to upgrade their infrastructure to have an easily cleanable milking barn, proper plumbing, and a separate milk house to store the product in a refrigerated, stainless-steel tank.

The Illinois proposal is currently on indefinite hold. Legislation to open the market in both Iowa and Indiana was proposed in 2013, but stalled in committee.

The proposed regulations in Illinois have garnered fierce resistance from raw milk consumers and producers, who see them as an attack on small businesses and personal freedom.

“The free market has taken us so far already. Why not just keep letting it go?” asks dairyman Zanger. “If you come out to my farm and you see something you don’t like that makes you not want to buy my milk, you have every right to say, ‘No, thanks.’ If everything looks appropriate, why can’t you buy it?”

In the absence of legislation in Illinois, producers like Zanger are left wondering whether they’ll have to pay for expensive upgrades in the near future — or worse, be shut down by regulators.

For now, Zanger continues to sell raw milk and cream to his customers. Even though it’s illegal, the thirst is there, and Zanger says so is his commitment to quenching it.


VT Digger: House Fish & Wildlife sends out tough water quality bill

John Herrick
Feb. 20 2015
Full Article

A panel of lawmakers has approved Vermont’s hallmark water quality legislation that puts in place new regulations to curb pollution and raises money for cleanup efforts.

The House Fish and Wildlife Committee voted 7-2 Friday to pass H.35, a 127-page bill that will form the foundation of Vermont’s effort restores impaired waterways stretching from Lake Champlain to the Connecticut River.

“This may be the pinnacle of my work on water quality,” said committee Chair David Deen, D-Westminster, minutes before the committee voted late Friday afternoon.

The bill would put in place new pollution control measures for farms, existing development and roads. The permits are designed to limit pollution runoff flowing from these areas and raise money for projects that help absorb runoff.

The bill also raises at least $13 million to pay for new water quality projects across the state, including a $15 per ton fee on fertilizer, a 2 cent per gallon increase to the gasoline tax and an increase to the rooms, meals and alcohol tax.

Environmental groups say the bill lays the groundwork for new water quality programs that address all major sources of runoff pollution in Vermont. Some say it could impose stronger regulations, but at least the proposed regulations are all-encompassing.

“It draws in all sectors. We don’t generally do that,” said Kim Greenwood, a water scientist with the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “And I hope it’s representative of a new way of thinking about water quality protections.”

“This is a critical foundation for moving in the direction of a clean lake. We certainly can’t do less than this,” said Chris Kilian, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation.

He said the committee was prepared to set mandatory pollution control measures on farmers in sections of the lake where pollution levels are higher. These are areas of the lake where the state’s plan will not go far enough to reduce phosphorus pollution enough to comply with limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Farmers oppose the fertilizer fee, arguing that it hits large farmers who follow water quality rules harder than smaller farms unfamiliar with the rules. The current fee is 25 cents per ton and would be increase to $15 per ton. The House Agriculture Committee opposes the fee increase.

“It hits large farms harder, those that are already doing the right thing. It would be unfair,” said Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, chair of House Ag.

Municipalities support the water quality bill, but asked for money to implement the upgrades. The bill includes a provision that directs funding to municipal pollution control projects.

The bill now goes to the Agriculture Committee before moving to Ways and Means.


The Packer: Congress reintroduces GMO labeling bill

By Andy Nelson

A bill to label genetically engineered foods has been reintroduced in the U.S. Congress.

Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., reintroduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, first introduced in 2013, on Feb. 12, according to a news release from DeFazio’s office.

“We cannot continue to keep Americans in the dark about the food they eat,” DeFazio said in the release. “More than 60 other countries make it easy for consumers to choose. Why should the U.S. be any different? If food manufacturers stand by their product and the technology they use to make it, they should have no problem disclosing that information to consumers.”

The bill would amend the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to require genetically engineered food and foods that contains genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled.

The bill cites “health, economic, environmental, religious and ethical” reasons for why genetically engineered foods should be labeled.

The United Kingdom, all European Union countries, South Korea, Japan, Brazil, Australia, India, China and other countries require labeling, according to the bill.

State and county efforts to label genetically modified foods have had mixed success.

In November, voters in Oregon and Colorado rejected ballot measures mandating labeling.

Voters in Hawaii’s Maui County, however, approved a moratorium on GMO cultivation in the county.

In April, Vermont became the first state to require labeling of foods made with genetically modified ingredients. The law goes into effect in July 2016.


VPR: Raw Milk Producers Say State Regulations Are Prohibitive


Full Article & Audio
Correction: Raw milk farmers have to NOTIFY customers if they get a high test count in their milk samples; they do not need to call customers individually as mentioned in this article

A group of agricultural entrepreneurs say they’ve found a product that could make their small farms profitable. But producers of raw milk say state regulations are hampering their ability to sell it.

Two years ago, Nate Rogers and his wife left their careers at IBM for a life of grain and dairy. Their 135-acre farmstead in Berlin sits on the rich soil of the Dog River valley. A milking barn houses a small herd of light brown Jerseys that just welcomed a new calf.

“This is little Clover,” Rogers says, petting the 3-week-old calf. “It’s a tough time of year to be born, but she did really well.”

The Rogers Farmstead is perhaps best known for its wheat flour and rolled oats, both of which appear in loaves produced by local bread companies – Red Hen Baking Co. and Elmore Mountain Bread. But the business plan also relies on sales of raw milk.

That milk – sold mostly by honor system, in sealed half-gallon jugs, from a kitchen refrigerator in a retail shop inside the barn – is why Rogers says he opted for the Jerseys.

“They graze really well, excellent quality milk, a lot of butter fat … And they’re a little more manageable, size-wise,” Rogers says. “They got some real good personalities too.”

But Rogers says the raw milk business got a little harder last October, when the state Agency of Agriculture overhauled the testing protocols that govern sales of this niche product.

Rogers says it’s just the latest volley from a state regulatory agency that, from his view, seems to have little interest in his success.

“They have been, unsupportive would be an understatement,” Rogers says. “I think that they just flat out don’t want to see the small farms competing in the marketplace.”

Only a handful of raw milk farmers are taking advantage of a 2009 law that authorized sales of larger quantities of this controversial product.

Since it isn’t pasteurized, raw milk raises food-safety concerns unassociated with conventional dairy. Rogers and other farmers say they’re happy to abide by the testing standards in the raw milk statute. But they say the tests were designed to monitor quality, so farmers could adjust their operations as necessary – not to put otherwise responsible farmers out of business.

Andrea Stander is the head of Rural Vermont, an organization that advocates on behalf of small farms.

“Why is the Agency of Agriculture devoting so much of its limited resources to trying to put the screws down on this limited group of farmers that are trying to have viable business?” Stander asked lawmakers recently.

Diane Bothfeld, deputy secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, says raw milk demands rigorous food safety protections, given the potential for outbreak of listeria, salmonella, giardia, or other nasty germs.

Bothfeld says the state also needs to protect the state’s other dairy producers from the black eye that a raw milk outbreak would inflict on the rest of the industry.

Until last October, raw milk producers had multiple chances to lower their bacteria counts before having to notify customers, or to cease sales. But Bothfeld says the agency decided the practice wasn’t sufficient.

“There is no pasteurization in between,” Bothfeld says. “There’s no one else in between the farmers and the consumer. And the quality of that milk is paramount.”

Bothfeld says consumers want to know what’s in their food, and she says this new agency policy does that.

“So the informed consent aspect, if the counts are elevated, making sure that people understand that, because we have found and heard, loud and clear in many of the debate that consumers want to know what’s in their food,” Bothfeld says.

Also, she says, the protocols have proven effective.

Farmers who sell raw milk say the only thing the new policy has been effective at is ruining raw milk businesses. They say at least one farm that had previously sold milk without incident has since quit the business.

According to unscientific numbers compiled annually by Rural Vermont, sales of raw milk grossed a little more than $250,000 in 2014, barely a blip on the screen in a dairy industry credited with generating $2.2 billion in economic activity annually in Vermont.

But raw milk producers say their market is almost wholly untapped, due in large part to laws and agency regulations that, for instance, prohibit customers from selling raw milk to most customers at farmers markets, or participating in CSAs.

According to Bothfeld, the agency revisited its testing standards after hearing concerns from “one or two” legislators who said they worried that the old protocols might not flag problem milk early enough in the distribution process.

The tests, performed at FDA-approved labs in either Burlington or Bethel, measures somatic cell count, coliform, and total bacteria – high levels of which can indicate dangerous germs that can cause sickness in healthy people, and, death in infants or elderly or immune-compromised adults.

And people like Frank Huard, who milks 10 goats at the Huard Family Farm in Craftsbury, says the new testing protocols came as a punch in the gut.

The protocols apply to “tier two” farmers, who are allowed to sell up to 280 gallons of milk weekly. Tier two farmers – there are seven now, according to the agency, down from a high of eight – have sold their milk without incident since the raw milk law went into effect five years ago. Huard says the updated testing rules are a draconian solution in search of a nonexistent problem.

“I mean they’re just exactly what people should be pointing to when they’re talking about the burdensome, cumbersome over-regulation of farmers and small businesses.” Huard says. “I mean, I either got to go out of business or go underground. We’re trying to do the right thing.”

Raw milk farmers point to places like New Hampshire and Maine, where more permissive raw milk statutes have bred a thriving market. In those states, and nine others, farmers can sell raw milk in retail grocery stores, not just farmers markets.

And raw milk producers say the potential revenue stream is could mean financial viability for the small, diversified agriculture operations that the Agency of Agriculture says it’s so interested in fostering.

Raw milk farmers have found at least a few legislators to take up their cause.

“There are some obstacles to these raw milk producers really growing their markets and finding new customers and making a viable living selling their milk,” says Barnard Rep. Teo Zagar. “I think there can be more flexibility with some of the testing requirements while still ensuring safety.”

Zagar will soon introduce legislation that would ease testing protocols, and also allow farmers to retail their raw milk at farmers markets.

“This is really an economic development bill for small farmers, to expand their markets and get their products to more people, while continuing to ensure that the food is safe,” Zagar says.


Capital Ag Press: Senate and House take different paths to legalizing hemp

February 11, 2015
By Don JenkinsFull Article

OLYMPIA — A Senate bill to legalize hemp cultivation takes three pages. A House bill to accomplish the same thing takes 24 pages.

Both chambers appear ready to OK the federally forbidden plant — after all voters legalized growing hemp’s psychoactive Cannabis cousin, marijuana.

But the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House have wildly different approaches, which must be reconciled.

The Senate already has unanimously passed Senate Bill 5012, which simply declares hemp an agricultural crop, no different than apples or wheat.

The legislation takes more than one page only to instruct Washington State University to study hemp’s potential as a commercial crop.

In contrast, House Bill 1552, which has yet to come to a floor vote, calls for the Washington Department of Agriculture to license hemp growers, control the seed supply, randomly test the potency of plants and penalize farmers who break the rules.

In a rare case of asking for more government oversight, the president of the Washington Hemp Industries Association, Joy Beckerman Maher, told a legislative committee that hemp can’t be as unregulated as potatoes or tomatoes.

“Here’s the reality: Industrial hemp is a controlled substance. It is treated as a controlled substance throughout the globe, including the 31 developed countries where we would be getting those desired seeds from,” she said.

WSDA should step in and prevent hemp and marijuana crops from cross-pollinating, ruining everybody’s investment and discrediting Washington’s hemp industry, she said.

“Please do not make the marijuana growers, and the industrial hemp farmers fight this out among themselves,” Beckerman Maher said.

Without seed controls, Washington hemp farmers would be viewed suspiciously worldwide by manufacturers of hemp products, she said.

The prime sponsor of SB 5012, Raymond Democrat Brian Hatfield, said hemp advocates are making things too complicated.

Federal authorities have made clear they expect Washington to closely regulate recreational marijuana, but hemp has a fraction of marijuana’s THC, the chemical that causes psychological effects. Hatfield said he doubts feds will care about hemp.

“This whole universe is changing so rapidly. This is going to be the least of federal concerns — cracking down on hemp farmers,” he said.

State officials say it’s anybody’s guess how many acres of hemp would be grown in Washington. Yakima Valley Sen. Jim Honeyford, who co-sponsored Hatfield’s bill and has long experience in Washington agriculture, has said he doubts many farmers would grow hemp.

The Office of Financial Management estimated WSDA would spend about $900,000 a year regulating hemp if the House bill were adopted. The bill allows WSDA to collect $10 per acre for a 36-month hemp license, though the department would have the authority to raise the fee.

Cannabis lobbyist Ezra Eickmeyer suggested the state create a database to let farmers know how close marijuana and hemp grows are to each other, but otherwise regulate hemp lightly. “We don’t need giant oversight from the government, like we do with marijuana right now,” he said.

Whatcom County hemp entrepreneur Sandy Soderberg told a Senate committee that she’s received “pledges” from farmers through her website to plant about 2,000 acres of hemp. She said, however, that some growers are concerned about the expense and necessity of regulation.

“They feel it conflicts with what we’re trying to portray … that it’s not marijuana. Yet, we’re still licensing it, structuring it as though it were marijuana,” she said.

In an interview, Soderberg said she was primarily concerned about tight restrictions on hemp seeds available to farmers. Nevertheless, she said she agrees that turning hemp loose without rules could lead to problems. “I’m struggling with this, to be quite honest,” she said. “One way or the other, we’re going to have a bill. It’s a matter of getting the right one.”


WPTZ: People speak out about GMOs

Second public hearing was held Wednesday
By Robyn Estabrook
Feb 05, 2015
Full Article & Video

MONTPELIER, Vt. —Consumers and members of pro-labeling groups gathered to testify at Wednesday’s public hearing on GMO labeling.

Andrea Stander, with Rural Vermont, thanked Attorney General Bill Sorrell for the way the public process was conducted.

“We appreciate the effort, we appreciate the work that the AG’s office has done both to develop the rule, but also to engage the public.  This is has been a public process from the very beginning,” Stander said.

Stander says things may have gone differently if people didn’t know what was going on.
“This law wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the fact that so many people across Vermont felt that this was an important opportunity for them to know more about where their food comes from and how it is produced,” Stander said.

The proposed rules tell food manufacturers how big the lettering must be on the box, disclosing that the food is produced with genetic engineering. And that could impact thousands of food items shoppers see on the supermarket shelves.

Jennifer Schomp, of Bethel, Vermont, spoke out at the hearing saying the rules need to go more in depth.

“I would say the biggest feedback I get from people discussing the content of the rule and in particularly the exemptions, right now is the rule hasn’t gone far enough to address processed materials, animal feeds, enzymes that are used to process materials,” Schomp said.

“Due to my work and the non GMO labeling that I do, I can certainly attest to the demand of GMO and non GMO labeled foods,”Schomp said.

The deadline for written comments about this issue is Feb. 12.


Reuters: Oregon adopts rules allowing industrial hemp crops

By Courtney Sherwood
Tue Feb 3, 2015
Full Article

(Reuters) – Oregon farmers could plant the state’s first industrial hemp crop this spring, a full year before businesses expect to start growing marijuana for recreational use, a state official said on Tuesday.

Farmers can grow the hemp in exchange for a $1,500 licensing fee and testing to confirm their crop does not possess enough intoxicating chemicals to get people high, said Agriculture Department manager Ron Pence.

But would-be growers of industrial hemp face a host of complications, including cannabis being illegal at the federal level even as prosecutors have cautiously allowed state experiments to go forward. So far, no one has applied for a license, Pence added.

“It’s not clear if there’s an adequate seed supply,” Pence said, noting that federal regulations made it virtually impossible for growers to legally import seeds into the state. Once hemp is grown, federal law also prohibits producers from selling outside Oregon.

Nationwide, 19 states have passed legislation to allow some measure of industrial hemp production, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Last year, Kentucky, Colorado and Vermont became the first states to report legal harvests of the product, according to the Hemp Industries Association.

Oregon’s industrial hemp law, passed by the state Legislature in 2009, is being implemented at the same time as state regulators draft rules governing the recreational use of marijuana under a ballot initiative voters passed last year.

Industrial hemp grown in the state must contain less than 0.3 percent THC, the active ingredient in pot.

Farmers have criticized the state’s fledgling industrial hemp program for banning growers from manufacturing products from hemp seeds, which are commonly used to make cosmetics and food additives.

Rules also require growers to make a three-year commitment to the program, when some are only interested in growing hemp for a year on a trial basis, Pence said, adding the state Legislature was working to address some of the concerns.

 


Capital Press: USDA cannot restrict GMO pine

Mateusz Perkowski

Full Article

A pine tree genetically engineered for greater wood density can be grown without restrictions after the USDA decided it lacks authority to regulate the variety.

The finding has alarmed critics of genetically modified organisms who fear the new cultivar will cross-pollinate with trees in the wild, resulting in unknown consequences for forests.

ArborGen, a tree seedling producer, altered the loblolly pine variety with a “gene gun,” inserting genetic material from the Monterey pine, the American sweetgum tree, mouse ear cress and E. coli bacteria.

None of these organisms are plant pest risks, so the USDA has determined the pine is not a regulated article and can be freely cultivated without undergoing environmental studies, unlike crops that rely on plant pathogens for their transformation.

Higher density in wood is generally associated with strength and durability in lumber as well as higher energy content for biomass uses, said Steven Strauss, a forest biotechnology professor at Oregon State University.

Biotech cultivars that rely on plant pests for gene transfer often undergo lengthy government scrutiny before they’re brought to market, he said.

“The regulatory process is highly political. It’s not just based on science,” Strauss said.

For this reason, companies are seeking alternate ways of commercializing genetically engineered crops, he said. “That’s understandable from the commercial point of view.”

Arborgen, for example, has tried to gain USDA’s approval since 2008 for a freeze-tolerant eucalyptus tree, which was transformed with a soil pathogen and thus must receive the agency’s permission for widespread commercialization.

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit to block the company from field testing the trees, but that request was denied by a federal judge.

Even so, Arborgen was asked to submit additional data about the biotech tree in 2011 and the variety remains regulated while the USDA conducts an in-depth environmental review.

Critics of genetically modified organisms such as the Center for Food Safety worry that Arborgen was able to circumvent field trial permits and other regulatory procedures with its loblolly pine cultivar.

The group claims it’s unprecedented for USDA to allow a genetically engineered tree to be cultivated without any government oversight.

“This is a genetically engineered organism that is going completely unregulated,” said Martha Crouch, biotechnology consultant for the organization.

Strauss, of OSU, said he would like to see more “nimble” regulations governing biotech crops but is nervous about USDA’s lack of authority over GMOs produced without plant pests.

While the USDA may not consider such crops to be regulated articles, other countries may disagree — creating the potential for “chaos in the marketplace,” he said.

The Center for Food Safety is concerned about potential environmental impacts, alleging that changes in wood density could affect decomposition rates and forest species.

Because the USDA decided it lacks regulatory authority over the tree, the agency only considered the method of transformation without assessing any other potential risks that it might pose, said Crouch.


The Des Moines Register: Global GMO plantings hit a record in 2014, led by US

Christopher Doering
January 28, 2015
Full Article

Biotech crops were grown on a record 448 million acres in 2014, a group that promotes the use of these crops reports Wednesday.

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications said genetically modified seeds, which contain DNA that’s been modified to express a trait such as resistance to a pest, an environmental condition or a chemical, were grown by 28 countries last year. The 448 million acres planted worldwide in 2014 was up 15 million acres from the previous year.

The United States continued to lead production with 180.6 million acres of biotech crops, an increase of about 7.6 million acres, or 4 percent, from 2013. In the United States, biotech crops are used for corn, cotton, sugar beet, squash and other crops.

“The (acreage) of biotech crops grown in 1996 to 2014 equals, roughly, 80 percent more than the total land mass of China,” said Clive James, ISAAA founder and author of the report. “Global (acreage) has increased more than 100-fold since the first plantings of biotech crops.”

The technology was commercially introduced in the United States in 1996 with the launch of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans, a plant that tolerates the company’s Roundup herbicide while nearby weeds are killed.

About 90 percent of all corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States is produced from genetically modified seed.


Times Argus: Sorrell confident on GMO lawsuit

BY NEAL P. GOSWAMI
1/29/15
Full Article 

MONTPELIER — Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said Wednesday that he expects a judge to rule on dueling motions in the GMO labeling case within the next three months, which will help lay out a path for the rest of the case.

A host of food industry groups sued the state last year over its GMO labeling law, set to take effect July 1, 2016. Sorrell briefed the Senate Agriculture Committee on the status of the case Wednesday.

The plaintiffs have asked the judge for a summary judgment, claiming the state is restricting their free speech rights by forcing them to label products that contain genetically modified organisms. They also claim the state cannot prevent them from calling a product natural if it contains GMOs.

The state has filed a motion for dismissal of the lawsuit. Oral arguments have already been heard, and Sorrell said the state “attacked each count of the plaintiffs’ complaint.”

In some cases, restricting the right to speech can be unconstitutional, according to Sorrell.

“In First Amendment free speech arena, there’s the freedom to speak or the freedom to remain silent. So, restricting speech can be a violation of free speech rights,” he said.

Under the GMO labeling law, the state is compelling food manufacturers to say when products have GMO ingredients. “They’re objecting, saying, ‘You are forcing us to speak on labels and we don’t want to,’” Sorrell said.

In this case, Sorrell said, courts have found such compelled speech to be constitutional in similar cases.

“On the compelled speech issue we suggest that there are legitimate governmental concerns about environmental issues and public health issues as it relates to genetically engineered products, and legitimate governmental interest to accommodate religious considerations for a segment of the population,” he said.

The state’s motion to dismiss cited a case from an appeals court in Washington, D.C., one step below the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the appeals court ruled that meat must be labeled with the country of origin. The court applied a lenient standard for the government to overcome, according to Sorrell.

“We should win on the compelled speech piece,” he said.

And, unlike with products that contain alcohol or tobacco and require health warnings, the law requires facts to be disclosed, much as on nutrition labels.

“Unlike those kinds of warnings, what our statute requires are simply factual assertions without sort of the taint or flavor, if you will, of saying, ‘Caution, these are hazardous to your health,’” Sorrell said. “These are akin to the … kinds of disclosures that you typically see on products for calories, fat content, salt and sugar and the like. The standard to which we should be held shouldn’t be a higher standard because it is just a factual assertion as opposed to a warning.”

Sorrell said he is also confident in the state’s argument for prohibiting the use of the term “natural” for GMO products.

“ T h e r e i s n o F i r s t Amendment right to make either false or misleading statements,” he said.

The state’s case points to a posting on the website of Monsanto, a biotechnology company that is taking part in the suit against the state, that describes GMOs as “plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs.”

“We say, ‘Listen, there’s no way you can say that this is natural,’” Sorrell said.

The suit also claims an undue burden on interstate commerce. Sorrell told the committee that the law provided more than two years’ notice to food manufacturers of the pending labeling requirement.

“The state was very accommodating there,” he said.

GMO labeling is already required in more than 60 countries. Two other states, Connecticut and Maine, have passed labeling requirements, though those have yet to take effect.

“This is not Vermont as some island in the world that’s requiring labeling,” Sorrell said.

U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss is expected to rule on the initial motions within the next several months, according to Sorrell. That will inform both sides how the rest of the case will proceed, he said.

“I think we’re hoping to be on a track where whatever evidentiary proceeding we’re going to need to do will be done sometime by late fall. Hopefully, a decision at the trial court (will happen), if not within this calendar year, then very early into the next calendar year,” he said.