Full list: Agriculture in the News

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.


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.


Reuters: Vermont Senate passes mandatory GMO food-labeling law

By Carey Gillam and Lisa Baertlein
April 16
Full Article

The Vermont Senate passed a bill on Wednesday that would make the state the first in the United States to enact mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically modified crops.

“We are really excited that Vermont is going to be leading on this,” said Falko Schilling, a spokesman for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which backed the bill.

The bill, approved 28-2 by the Senate, has already passed the Vermont House of Representatives. It now goes back to the House to see if members will approve changes made by the Senate.

The law is set to take effect July 1, 2016.

The move in Vermont comes as the developers of genetically modified crops and U.S. grocery manufacturers push for passage of an opposing bill, introduced in Congress last week, that would nullify any state law that requires labeling of foods made with genetically modified crops.

The Vermont law passed by the Senate would do just that – processed foods that contain genetically modified corn, soybeans or other GMO ingredients and sold at retail outlets would have to be labeled as having been produced or partially produced with “genetic engineering.”

Andrea Stander, a spokesperson for the Vermont Right to Know GMOs coalition, said they expect the biotech industry to sue in an attempt to stop enactment of the bill. As such, the language of the bill includes formation of a fund that would pay legal bills.

“It’s not just Vermont,” said Stander. “This affects everyone who eats. Consumers all across the country have woken up to the fact that we’ve become an unregulated feeding experiment by the biotech industry. People want to know if their foods are made with these ingredients. This gives people the choice.”

Consumer groups say labeling is needed because of questions both about the safety of GM crops – known as GMOs – for human health and the environment.

The language of the Vermont bill states that foods made with genetically engineered crops “potentially pose risks to health, safety, agriculture, and the environment” and should be labeled.

Last October, a group of 93 international scientists issued a statement saying there was a lack of empirical and scientific evidence to support what they said were false claims the biotech industry was making about a “consensus” on safety.

The group said there needed to be more independent research as studies showing safety tend to be funded and backed by the biotech industry.

But GMO crop developers like Monsanto, and their backers say genetically modified crops are proven safe.

Ballot measures in California in 2012 and last year in Washington state narrowly lost after Monsanto and other GMO crop developers and members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association poured millions into campaigns to defeat the measures.

The Vermont bill makes it illegal to describe any food product containing GMOs as “natural” or “all natural.” Unlike bills passed last year in Maine and Connecticut, which require other states to pass GMO labeling laws before they can be enacted, Vermont’s law contains no such trigger clause.


The Complete Patient: A Farmer, and Mom, Pleads for “Common Sense” Raw Milk Regs

Intro by David Gumpert, Article by Rural Vermont Board Member Tamara Martin
4/18/2014
Full Article

The  Vermont legislature is considering very narrow legislation (S 70) that would allow the two largest raw dairies in the state to deliver raw milk to customers at farmers markets. Not sell it, mind you, just drop it off to customers, so they don’t have to trek to the farms to pick it up. A Vermont House committee has been holding hearings on this proposal, listening to both proponents and opponents of raw milk. I was among proponents offering testimony. But in addition to outside “experts,” the legislative committee has also heard from a number of raw dairy farmers. I thought the testimony offered by one of them spoke very well to the issue of risk, as well as to the hidden economic implications of reduced raw milk availability. 

by Tamara Martin

 

Tamara Martin with two of her childrenTamara Martin with two of her children

My husband and I are co-owners and managers of Chandler Pond Farm in S. Wheelock, VT in the Northeast Kingdom. We are a diversified farm of 200 acres. We grow five acres of vegetables and berries, process 1,000 pastured chickens a year, as well as pastured pork, grass-fed beef, eggs, maple syrup, hay, and lastly, raw milk. This diverse model works for us as we direct market all of our products and are able to provide a wide variety of nutritious food for our local community, while keeping the family tradition of farming going strong. It also allows us not have all our income in one basket and lets our enterprises complement each other.

My husband is the fifth continuous generation in his family making a living farming in Vermont… There is a blue milk pitcher in our fridge feeding us and our three children, 8, 7 and 5, fresh milk since we began our family and started farming.

We currently market our products through several avenues—all local. We have a 45-member CSA, a farm stand on the farm, and we attend two farmers markets. The raw milk, of course, is only sold at the farm. We are a micro dairy. We milk two to four heritage breed cows, American Milking Devons, which don’t produce in large volume, but their milk is incredibly high quality. Milking Devons are known for their higher protein content as well as higher CLA’s and Omega- 3s, than most any other milk. Buying a product like this, pure Devon milk, anywhere but directly from the farm, is virtually impossible in Vermont. 

We don’t sell a large amount of milk, largely because of the location of our farm. Even if we were able to meet reasonable guidelines to sell at drop off points or markets, our dairy herd would never grow as large as many in Vermont. We chose this path of a micro dairy because it allows us to produce a high quality milk, and we are able to take care of cows and our milking systems to the degree of cleanliness and sanitation that we feel best about.  

Fresh milk sales in Vermont feel particularly challenging. I have personally done plenty of research and reading about regulations in other states such as New Hampshire, Maine, as well as accompanying statistics. I understand the desire for food safety, but only when balanced by common sense and the idea that people have an inherent right to choose the food that is best for their family, whether we agree or not. We can choose raw milk or Diet Coke, understanding the risks. It’s our choice. 

One has to realize that even before being a farmer, I am a mother. I am not interested in feeding my children an unsafe product. But I also am not interested in fear. I like to understand the risks and benefits and how it fits into the scheme of daily life. It is easy to read one scary story and have a knee-jerk reaction. When this happens to me, I force levelheadedness to take over. There are risks in everything. Do I allow my children to each poached eggs? Can they jump on a trampoline? Will I feed them raw milk from a source that I know to use the highest standards of sanitation and precaution? Do I allow them to visit Grandma in the hospital during flu season? Should they touch the grocery cart when norovirus is going around our small town? 

I can’t fear everything. I make decisions based on facts and risks. With all that said, we drink raw milk from our farm and have from others that we trust when we aren’t milking. I guess I feel the need to explain this, because I would never knowingly sell something I personally wouldn’t drink or feed my children just for economic benefit.

So let’s talk economics. It is hard to sell milk when your farm is just six miles out of town. I can’t imagine farms that are twenty miles out that have an excellent quality product and no customers.

In order to make your micro dairy profitable, you have to be able to sell a certain volume, with a certain bottom line. This is a business and our expenses are real,  as is our time. If it’s established that this product is safe, please, let us sell it and support our families by farming. If we’re selling lots of it, then the regulations should be appropriate. If we are just selling a few quarts a day, then let’s use our common sense in those regulations. Scale-appropriate rules are ideal in risk and economics.

I get dozens of requests from customers every summer who know I have milk for sale at the farm, to sell it at the market or even just bring it to town. I am constantly explaining to them that this is illegal. They’re always disappointed and sometimes even frustrated. They want to drink fresh milk, for their own reasons, but can’t afford the time and gas to come out to the farm every week.

Now I want to address really quickly what some of the realities of milk delivery to a market or central drop-off locations might look like at our farm. First off, understand that we currently bring a truckload of vegetables, eggs, as well as two or three coolers of frozen meat to two markets a week all summer. As well, bi- monthly winter markets. Keeping products chilled and high quality is always a concern and the biggest effort of farmers markets for many reasons. Number 1 being that NO ONE wants to sell (or try to, rather) substandard product. 

Bringing the meat in coolers frozen solid has always worked like a charm. The meat stays frozen even on the hottest days. We leave the lids on with a price list and open to let the customers choose their product then close them. No problems. Vegetables can be a difficult at times but we have found if they are prechilled prior to loading up for market with cold towels they do very well. Based on those experiences, I could imagine several scenarios for transporting and keeping milk chilled. I am always amazed at farmers’ ingenuity. For example the many different ways small micro dairies like ours have figured out how to chill milk in the time limit given to the right temps.

The initial ideas for us when thinking about transporting milk to market or central locations involve making sure the milk is adequately chilled ahead of time, plenty of ice packs and possibly an ice water bath with a small cooler of secondary ice packs to change out on particularly hot days. A min/max thermometer in our cooler etc. I urge you to allow drop off points and farmers sales and with a few COMMON SENSE guidelines and let us try at our hand at how we’ll do it. 

Currently there is a law to allow delivery to homes. In allowing drop off points and market sales, the last concern is what happens to the milk from the time it leaves the farmer to when it gets to the fridge. I tend to trust people to make good decisions. I know you or I would. At market currently I am constantly talking to people about keeping their product. Most customers, for example, when purchasing meat but maybe lingering at the market for lunch, will leave their meat in my cooler until they are ready to head home, I don’t tell them to do this, and they do it themselves because they are smart and can be trusted to figure out how to take care of their food. Others bring insulated bags or coolers in their cars with ice packs, the same goes actually for folks who buy milk at our farm. I don’t see how drop off points or markets really change anything. At some point we have to assume when making laws that people are smart, just like we assume they wash their cutting boards after cutting meat and wash their hands.

Lastly, one of the things that gets me most frustrated about food rights is the poverty and justice side of this issue. We’ve passed a law that says folks can buy this product, it is safe enough for that, BUT they’ll need to go to the farm, or live in the delivery area of the two farms delivering milk, AND be home when that delivery is supposed to come. What that says to me is, if you don’t own a car and have the gas, money and time to drive five to twenty miles or more you don’t actually have that right. It means this is a product available only to those who can afford it. It isn’t the market price that is not allowing them to feed themselves in the best way they believe possible, it’s the laws around the product, which by default have eliminated the families or persons who don’t make enough money to get it.

Many family and friends we know and love have been drinking raw milk for years. Hopefully, the disconnect of what is legal to eat at any given time and what generations of Vermonters have been eating and continue to eat is closing as we close the culture gap and the legal gap with common sense regulations and allow ALL Vermonters access to the food of their choosing whether they live near a farm or not. 


WCAX: Should Vermonters have more access to raw milk?

Apr 15, 2014
By Shelby Cashman
Full Article & Video

MONTPELIER, Vt. -A Vermont great dairy debate– raw milk versus pasteurized milk.

“People really desire a raw product, something that hasn’t been altered by pasteurization or been altered in the name of profit more often than not,” said Nathan Rogers, who owns Rogers Farmstead.

The sale of raw milk in our region is allowed, but there are restrictions aimed at protecting the public from getting sick. Tier 2 dairy farmers can sell up to 40 gallons a day of raw milk from their farms, but now they say it’s about taking it to market.”

“If you’re gonna do this and do this safely, you have to have the ability to move the product,” Rogers said. “And if it’s sitting around, that doesn’t help. It’s all about being able to create an economic business model that will work for the farmer.”

The House Agriculture Committee heard testimony Tuesday on bill S.70. If passed, the bill would allow tier 2 or larger dairy producers to deliver to farmers markets.

Critics say if the bill passes, consumers may not know the risks of what they are buying. But raw milk producers say their product is completely safe and thoroughly tested, and drinking and buying raw milk is a choice.

“It’s all about what you as an individual feel is safe, what you as an individual choose to do with your own body and your family,” Rogers said. “And that’s really for us what it comes down to, the fundamental right to make the decision yourself.”

Raw milk producers say they represent a small fraction of dairy farmers in Vermont and they serve a niche market, but they want to be able to sustain a viable business through the expansion of their method of sale.


Times Argus: Senate puts Vt. on verge of nation’s first GMO label law

By NEAL P. GOSWAMI VERMONT PRESS BUREAU
4/16/14
Full Article

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate gave preliminary approval Tuesday to legislation that requires foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such.

The 26-2 vote sets Vermont on a course to become the first state to require labeling of GMOs. The House passed a similar version of the bill, H.112, last year.

The legislation passed by the Senate would take effect July 1, 2016; the House version would kick in July 1 of this year.

Two other states — Connecticut and Maine — have passed labeling laws, but theirs require other states to do the same before they take effect.

Three state Senate committees — Agriculture, Judiciary and Appropriations — worked to craft a bill that will provide Vermonters more information about the foods they eat. Committee members also looked to make the proposed law as defensible in court as possible.

Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, vice chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said labeling will be the responsibility of the producer.

“We made it clear that the labeling requirement is on the manufacturer of the food; on the processed, packaged food. It’s not the retail store obligation to label what is and what’s not,” he told his colleagues.

He said food manufacturers that do not want to carry a label indicating that GMOs may be present will need to secure affidavits from the suppliers of their ingredients stating they are free of GMOs.

Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his panel “tried to make sure that as best as possible the state would be able to defend against a potential lawsuit.”

He said if the courts strike down the law they would be saying “the consumer doesn’t have a right to know what’s in their food.”

The Judiciary Committee added to the legislation a special fund that is aimed at helping the state defend the law. Sears said Attorney General William Sorrell has estimated it would cost at least $1 million to fight an industry lawsuit.

The fund would accept private donations but could also be filled with settlement money secured by the attorney general’s office.

“There is no way that we can say, No. 1, that we would prevail should we be sued, but I think we have given ourselves the best opportunity to prevail, should it arise,” Sears said.

Advocates, some of whom have worked for decades to pass such legislation, hailed the Senate vote as a major victory.

“Today the Senate stood up for the vast majority of Vermonters who want to see genetically engineered foods labeled,” said Falko Schilling, a consumer protection advocate with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “Vermont is once again leading the nation by acknowledging the important fact that everyone has a right to know what they are eating.”

Andrea Stander, director of Rural Vermont, also hailed the vote.

“This is a victor y for everyone who eats,” Stander said. “It is fitting that Vermont, where we take food seriously, is on the way to becoming the first state in the U.S. to require that genetically engineered foods be labeled.”

The bill is up for final approval in the Senate t o d a y b e f o r e h e a d i n g back to the House, where minor differences between the two versions must be reconciled.


VT Digger: State senate passes GMO labeling bill, 26-2

John Herrick
Apr. 15 2014
Full Article

The Vermont Senate on Tuesday voted 26-2 to give preliminary approval to a GMO labeling bill. If the bill is enacted, the state would be the first in the nation to require manufacturers to label products containing genetically engineered ingredients.

The scientific community is not in agreement on whether GMOs are harmful to human health, but Vermont lawmakers say the bill is about consumers’ “right to know” what is in their food.

“It’s simply about information for consumers to make a decision,” said Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, the bill’s lead sponsor.

Sweeteners, oils, cereals and snack foods are often made from genetically engineered corn, soybeans and cotton. Vermont lawmakers fear genetically engineered ingredients could be used in more foods.

The majority of processed foods sold in the U.S. contain raw ingredients that are genetically modified to ward off pests and tolerate herbicides, according to federal regulators, and because labeling is not required consumers have no idea they are eating these genetically modified organisms.

Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said scientists are experimenting with arctic fish genes in strawberries right now.

“It’s part fish. Now imagine that you are someone who is vegan, someone who is vegetarian, someone who is mindful of their food,” Baruth said, pointing also to religious restrictions on food consumption.

“You have no way of knowing under the current system that your food is not being mixed without your knowledge,” he said. “It is protecting the consumer at the point of consumption from potentially the worst that science has to offer.”

The Attorney General’s Office expects to ultimately defend the legislation in court. Whether the bill violates constitutional protections against compelled speech, laws prohibiting adverse impacts on interstate commerce and rules prohibiting conflicts between state and federal law are among the legal questions the state could be forced to answer in court.

The bill sets up a $1.5 million special fund to defend the law. The money will come from private donations, state appropriations and from settlements awarded to the state. Violators of the law could face penalties as high as $1,000 per day for each product.

Lawmakers are confident the legislation can withstand constitutional challenges.

“Our goal was to make this as defensible as we possibly could,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, told lawmakers. His committee unanimously supported the bill.

Unlike other states’ GMO policies that only take effect when others enact similar legislation, Vermont’s bill would become law July 1, 2016. The House version would have had the law go into effect sooner if other states passed similar legislation, but Judiciary removed what some refer to as the “trigger clause.”

“Relying on other states was not in our best interest,” Sears said. “It was in our best interest to go forward and hope that other states would follow Vermont.”

Animal products would be exempt from the labeling requirement. The bill asks the Attorney General’s Office to report to lawmakers with a recommendation on whether to label dairy products containing GMOs.

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

The Senate on Wednesday will cast a final vote on the bill. If approved, it will go to a conference committee, where it will be reconciled with the House bill.


VPR: Vermont On Course To Be First To Require GMO Labels

By Bob Kinzel
4/15/14Full Article and Audio

Vermont is poised to become the first state in the country to require the labeling of food products made with genetically modified organisms.

After nearly two hours of debate, a strong bipartisan coalition of senators gave their preliminary approval to the bill by a vote of 26 to 2.

Under the bill, the labeling requirements would go into place in July of 2016 and would affect virtually all food products sold in Vermont.

Backers of the plan like Windsor Sen. Dick McCormack said the legislation was not an indictment of the science of genetic engineering. Instead, he described the bill as a basic consumer right-to-know issue.

The question that this bill addresses is not the safety or danger of genetically modified organisms in any case,” said McCormack. “The question the bill addresses is the right to know.”

Caledonia Sen. Joe Benning told his colleagues that he often inspects food labels to learn about their carbohydrate levels. Benning says he does this because he has a much easier time losing weight when he restricts his intake of carb heavy foods.

“So the question for me, Mr. President, is ‘do I have the right to deny them the way to look at a label the same way that I do for carbohydrates, and determine whether or not there is something in there that might or might not affect how their body might react?'” Benning asked. “And I believe the answer is yes.”

Two other New England states, Maine and Connecticut, have passed GMO labeling bills. But those laws don’t go into effect until a number of other states have enacted similar legislation. That has been done, in part, as a way to share legal fees if the laws are challenged in court.

The Senate bill doesn’t need the approval of any other state before becoming law.  Senate Judiciary committee chairman Dick Sears thinks Vermont will be in good shape if the state is sued.

We felt that the bill that we’re representing today to the Vermont Senate is defensible, number one,” said Sears. “Number two, we felt that a trigger of some future date and relying on other states was not in our best interest. That it was in our best interest to go forward and hope that other states would follow Vermont.”

The bill passed by a vote of 26 to two. One of the dissenting votes came from Franklin Sen. Norm McAllister who is a former dairy farmer. McAllister says he’s used a variety of GMO products over the years and never had any problems.

Because the Senate bill is similar to legislation passed by the House last year, it’s possible that House leaders will accept the Senate version and then send the bill to the governor. Or they might ask for a conference committee to negotiate some of their differences with the Senate bill.