Full list: Agriculture in the News

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.


Acres USA: Escaping Biotech’s Grip

Why some farmers are avoiding GM feed crops
Featuring Rural Vermont Executive Director Andrea Stander
April 2014
By Tracy Frisch

Read the PDF here.


Politico: Raw politics drive milk wars

Got raw milk?
By TARINI PARTI | 3/29/14 3:12 PM EDT
Full Article

Although not a campaign slogan just yet, a bipartisan coalition of House members is pushing for the overturn of a decades-old ban on the interstate sale of raw milk. A controversial topic within the food industry, it has slowly evolved into a pet cause that’s bringing together some of the most anti-government libertarians and left-leaning liberals.

Loosening regulations on raw – or unpasteurized — milk, which the Food and Drug Administration believes poses too many health risks, has been gaining steam on the state level in recent times, with at least half of states now allowing the sale of raw milk directly to consumers and several more seeing raw milk-related bills being introduced in the previous two sessions.

Now, with the introduction of two new bills in Congress by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), proponents of legalizing raw milk are making strides on the national front, too. Massie’s first bill, the “Milk Freedom Act of 2014,” would overturn the interstate ban on raw milk, and his other bill, the “Interstate Milk Freedom Act of 2014,” would allow interstate shipment of raw milk only between two states where raw milk sales are already legal.

The swing in momentum can, in part, be attributed to a transformation of the argument that advocates are using. The debate used to be centered on the health and nutritional benefits of raw milk versus the safety of pasteurized milk, but the likes of Ron Paul — who mentioned the issue in several speeches during his 2012 presidential run and introduced similar bills when he was in Congress — have turned it into one about freedom of choice.

“It’s nice to see that people are now advocating for their right rather than science,” said Baylen Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal, a group that describes itself as “the first nationwide membership organization devoted to food freedom—the right of every American to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat, and drink the foods of their own choosing.”

In a statement on his two bills, Massie, too, highlighted the right to choose argument. “Today, many people are paying more attention to the food they eat, what it contains, and how it is processed. Raw milk, which has been with us for thousands of years, is making a comeback among these discerning consumers,” he said. “Personal choices as basic as ‘what we feed our families’ should not be limited by the federal government.”

Massie’s bills already have nearly 20 co-sponsors, including Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Tom McClintock (R-Calif.).

It’s a strange alliance.

Pingree, in particular, doesn’t typically share the same views on food-related policy as Massie or other Republicans, having fought recently against food stamp cuts and the use of pesticides that are endangering the Monarch butterfly population. But, in 2011, she wrote FDA to express her concern over the agency’s diverting of precious resources to “prevent consumers from choosing the type of milk that they drink.”

“When Ron Paul introduced his bill, he had trouble even getting one sponsor,” said David Gumpert, author of The Raw Milk Revolution, a 2006 book that paints an unflattering view of the government crackdown on raw milk producers. “This is quite an about-face. It speaks to the huge political change that as many representatives would go on record in support of raw milk just a few years after Ron Paul did this. It’s pretty impressive.”

The two new bills follow Sen. Rand Paul’s proposed amendment to the farm bill that would have allowed the direct sale of raw milk across state lines. The Kentucky Republican also made the food freedom argument, but he was unsuccessful in gathering support for his amendment.

In the past, raw milk advocates have argued that the product is actually healthier than pasteurized milk, but the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have countered that claim by pointing to data that shows the number of foodborne illnesses that can be attributed to raw milk.

Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, the major national group advocating for raw milk, argues that the statistics paint a misleading picture. He says there are several other products that aren’t banned that contribute to diseases, such as cigarettes, alcohol and even pasteurized milk in some cases.

“The trouble is that raw milk is the only food that is held to a standard of perfection,” he said.

Kennedy’s group, the advocacy arm of The Weston A. Price Foundation, more than doubled its fundraising — a measure of the growing interest in raw milk — between 2009 and 2011, according to the group’s tax filings. It raised about $240,000 in 2009 and nearly $530,000 in 2011.

Another factor now driving the movement is consumers’ growing disdain for Big Ag, said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney and food safety advocate who has represented several clients made sick by raw milk.

“There has certainly been a more vocal movement to consume raw milk as people have turned away from mass produced agriculture,” he said.

“The reasons why (clients) were consuming raw milk was because they believed it was healthier, and they were supporting small farmers and poking a stick in the eye of Big Ag.”

Despite the growing grassroots movement in favor of loosening raw milk regulation and bipartisan support, getting a bill through Congress will continue to be an uphill battle, especially with strong opposition from the dairy industry. The National Milk Producers Federation and International Dairy Foods Association — usually on opposite sides of dairy policy — have repeatedly compared consuming raw milk to “playing Russian roulette.”

Chris Galen, spokesman for NMPF, said his group will be educating members of Congress on the risks associated with raw milk to deter Massie’s bills from gaining traction. NMPF joined with state dairy associations in Wisconsin earlier this year to keep a raw milk bill from advancing in the state legislature and push Gov. Scott Walker to veto the legislation.

Kimberly Hartke, a spokeswoman for The Weston A. Price Foundation’s Campaign for Real Milk, acknowledges that any changes on raw milk regulation on the federal level might be tough to achieve, but she remains confident her side will prevail.

“It’s basically just the grassroots’ hard work, energy and enthusiasm that’s making the difference,” Hartke said. “And ultimately that will win the day.”


Seven Days: Farmers need seeds to cultivate hemp crop

By Kathryn Flagg
4/9/14
Full article

Last year, activists pushing for the legal cultivation of hemp scored a big victory in Vermont: In June, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law a bill that legalizes the cultivation of cannabis sativa, a relative of marijuana that proponents say could be a lucrative value-added crop for Vermont farmers.

The only trouble? State law doesn’t match up with federal regulations, which still classify hemp as an illegal, controlled substance — despite the fact that industrial hemp lacks tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in the concentrations necessary to produce a high. The disconnect between state and federal rules isn’t scaring off many farmers, who say the feds have bigger fish to fry, but it is making it difficult to legally obtain seeds for cultivation.

Farmers’ options are limited: Some are considering smuggling seeds in from Canada, where hemp has been cultivated legally since 1998. Others are looking to online retailers to import seeds. A few have said they plan to harvest and store seeds from feral hemp plants in Vermont.

“Right now, getting seeds is nearly impossible,” said Heidi Mahoney, a garlic farmer and homesteader in Panton who once owned Fat Hen Market in Vergennes.

“[Smuggling is] not my forte,” joked Mahoney’s husband, sculptor Eben Markowski. But if seeds “magically” appeared on their doorstep, he said, “There’s no question. We would absolutely plant it.”

Why? Hemp, one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world, can be used for food, fuel and fiber. The farm advocacy group Rural Vermont and the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund estimate the crop could bring in between $2,000 and $3,000 an acre for farmers. Last year’s net returns in Canada were lower — $433 and $522 for conventional and organic hemp, respectively — but still brought in more than corn ($273 per acre) and soybeans ($332). It’s a good crop to use in rotation with corn, which dairy farmers grow extensively for feed, and it can help kill weeds in fields without the use of herbicides.

But hemp is still sometimes mistaken for its psychotropic relative, marijuana. That misconception is less common in Vermont, says Rural Vermont organizer Robb Kidd, but he still gets the occasional “Oh, you want to smoke it!” comment. In fact, industrial hemp contains only between 0.3 and 1.5 percent THC, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana. Nowadays pot has much higher concentrations of THC — 13 percent on average, according to the Marijuana Potency Monitoring Project at the University of Mississippi. (That’s significantly stronger than the strains smoked in the 1970s.)

It might not get you high, but hemp has many other uses. It can be woven into fabric, or used to make paper. The fibers are used for animal bedding and can be mixed into a building product called “hempcrete.” Hemp was grown extensively in the U.S. during World War II; the U.S. Department of Agriculture even rolled out a Hemp for Victory campaign to encourage farmers to plant hemp after war with Japan cut off Asian imports of the crop. But the last hemp processing plant in the U.S. closed in the mid-1950s, as a result of hemp regulations Kidd says were based on “fear tactics” and misinformation perpetuated during the 1940s and ’50s that equated hemp with marijuana.

Twelve farmers have already registered with the Agency of Agriculture to grow hemp during the 2014 growing season. It’s a fairly painless process; farmers must send in $25 and a one-page registration form in which they acknowledge that cultivating and possessing hemp in Vermont is a violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act; applicants agree to “hold harmless” the state should they find themselves in legal trouble.

The new U.S. Farm Bill, passed in February, does carve out one exception for hemp cultivation at the federal level; the bill gives the go-ahead to research institutions and universities to grow hemp for pilot projects and research. There’s still some legal confusion around the prospect, but at least one state — Kentucky — is set to put seeds in the ground this spring. The Bluegrass State’s attorney general weighed in with a favorable interpretation of the Farm Bill provision.

Scientists and agronomists at the University of Vermont are just as eager to plant this year, but seeds have to be in the ground by the end of next month. Vote Hemp’s cofounder and director Eric Lineback, who lives in Dummerston, isn’t holding his breath.

But within a year, Lineback predicted, the confusion over seed sourcing and legal questions will be “all be worked out, and you’ll see a ton of studies going next year.”

Lineback admits that his predictions about hemp aren’t always accurate; he once guessed that hemp cultivation would be legal in the U.S. by 2000, a benchmark that came and went. Now, though, he’s starting to feel cautiously optimistic that federal rules will fall into line behind states like Vermont that are exploring hemp cultivation. Federal hemp legislation has been slowly gaining steam — and sponsors — during its recurrent appearances in the U.S. House of Representatives, and last year saw the first industrial hemp bill introduced in the Senate.

“I’ve been in this issue for coming up on 20 years, and I can confidently say we are at a tipping point,” Lineback said. “It’s food, fuel, fiber, clothing, shelter. It’s really an amazing plant. It’s not going to save the world, but it’s certainly part of the solution.”

Husband-and-wife team Markowski and Mahoney say they’ve already signaled to UVM that they’d be interested in being a test site for hemp cultivation. But they’re also willing to forge ahead on their own; Markowski said he views hemp cultivation as a form of “civil disobedience.” The two live on an eclectic homestead in Panton, where their small farm is a sort of sanctuary for rescued farm animals. Ducks waddle around the yard, searching out patches of sunshine. A rescued cow, born prematurely on a dairy farm, looks on from her pasture.

The couple has a growing garlic farm, and their gardening Bible is Ruth Stout’s Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy & the Indolent. “There’s a certain advancement to finding the most simple way to do something,” says Markowski.

With that mindset, he and Mahoney are eager to cultivate hemp. “It’s an amazing plant that so badly wants to grow,” said Markowski. Specifically, they’d love to cultivate hemp seeds for their own consumption. “It is the super food,” said Markowski.

Johnny Vitko, in Warren, is equally excited about the plant — though he plans to feed the seeds to his chickens. He and his wife own an ice cream shop in Waitsfield and keep 200 chickens, whose eggs make their way into their ice cream custards.

“It’s a great food for them,” he said, noting hemp is loaded with amino acids and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

As a small farmer, Vitko doesn’t have the infrastructure to raise corn or soybeans, but hemp would be another story; he envisions harvesting the stalks with his small, Italian-made walk-behind tractor. Eventually he’d like to turn the stalks into pellets for heating fuel. He hopes to cultivate an acre or two of hemp — enough to feed his chickens through the winter.

“I’m spending upwards of $100 a week on chicken feed in the winter,” said Vitko. “I find if I do things myself, I save more money in the long run.”

Vitko’s plan is to buy seeds online; he’s already located a source, though some hemp activists warn you don’t know what you’re getting.

There’s a sharp irony in trying to acquire seeds for cultivation, Vitko noted: “I could find high-grade marijuana seeds a lot easier than I could viable hemp seeds.”

Farmers aren’t the only Vermonters interested in local hemp production. In Middlebury, Netaka White and David McManus want to source seeds regionally for the production of canola, sunflower, flax, soybean and hemp oil. Their venture, Full Sun Company, will press the seeds to produce edible oils; the byproduct of that process will then be used for feed at local farms.

They’ve already begun producing some organic, non-GMO sunflower and canola oil. Until they can source hemp locally, they’ll contract with a Canadian producer and presser, then import hemp oil from Ontario.

White is no stranger to hemp; his background is in textile design and manufacturing, and from 1989 to 2002 he ran a bag and accessory line made from European hemp canvas. “I was fascinated by its versatility, the charm of it being related to its illegal cousin,” White said, remembering his introduction to the fiber. “It struck me as, Why don’t more people know about this?”

Now he’s excited about the possibility of local hemp cultivation. “It grows well here,” he said. “It fits to our scale of production. And there’s a whole lot of value-adding opportunities that we haven’t even begun to appreciate.”

From White’s perspective, one of the obvious markets is oil. “We’ve been telling farmers and those interested: ‘We are open for business to buy any Vermont hemp seed,’” he said, adding that Full Sun wants to be processing locally grown hemp “as soon as possible.”

While farmers and activists alike recognize and acknowledge the legal gray area that still hovers around hemp cultivation, few are expressing serious concern about the ramifications of planting. “You literally are betting the farm if you grow hemp,” said Lineback, noting that farmers who run afoul of the feds could see their land seized.

White’s Full Sun would also be risking federal prosecution for possessing hemp.

“We understand the risks and are willing to go forward in pioneering this new industry,” White said. “I would be very surprised if the federal government thought it was worthwhile to annoy or hassle a few Vermont farmers growing a non-psychoactive crop.”

Markowski, in Panton, agreed.

“You really want to make an example of salt-of-the-earth people trying to grow this kind of crop in their backyard?” he asked. “That is crazy.”


VT Digger: GMO labeling would begin in July 2016, according to Senate version

By Hilary Niles
4/3/14
Full Article

Vermont lawmakers are poised to “boldly go where no other state has gone before,” Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said Thursday before casting his vote for an unprecedented food-labeling law.

The Senate Judiciary Committee gave H.112 unanimous approval Thursday. The bill would require the labeling of food made with genetically modified ingredients sold in Vermont.

Vermont will not wait for more states to adopt similar laws before it moves ahead with GMO labeling.

Connecticut and Maine have passed laws that included a trigger based on other states’ adoption of labeling provisions. Vermont lawmakers emulated Connecticut’s and Maine’s legislation, but did not include a trigger in H.112.

GMO label SLIDERVoter referendums for GMO labeling mandates failed in California and Washington in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Other states, including New Hampshire and New York, are considering their own standards.

As drafted, Vermont’s bill would apply to all food and drink sold in the state, except meat, milk and food sold in restaurants. After much discussion, committee members agreed it should also apply to chewing gum — but not chewing tobacco.

Lawmakers also agreed to establish a fund to cover the costs of implementing the law, including any legal challenge it might face.

Sears said he absolutely expects a lawsuit — which is why establishing a funding mechanism to pay for litigation is so important in his view.

Benning also anticipates a lawsuit.

“I want to make it very clear I’m not voting for this bill because I have some passionate desire to slap Monsanto,” Benning said. “This is, in my eyes, a simple request that I have the right to know what’s in my product when I buy it. No more, no less.”

The legislation previously won the support of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. It heads next to Appropriations before it goes to the Senate floor. Should it pass there, a conference committee would be needed to reconcile the bill with the version that passed the House in 2013.

If it becomes law, the Attorney General’s Office would begin rule-making immediately. Labeling requirements would take effect July 2016.

Vermont food producers

Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, thinks the delayed effective date will give food producers and retailers time to comply.

Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Grocers’ Association, said the law would pose a problem for the state’s food producers regardless of timing. He said the fundamental challenge is a lack of uniformity with national standards.

Harrison said his organization does not hold a position on labeling. Grocers want to see a unified national approach that will be easier for U.S. producers to implement that would level the field of competition.

The dairy exemption

Sears and Benning both expressed serious reservations about the exemption for milk.

Often referred to as a “dairy” exemption, the provision is narrowly written. Only fluid milk would be exempt; dairy products such as yogurt or ice cream would have to be labeled if any of their non-milk ingredients contain GMOs.

The exemption is based on a lack of traceable GMO material in milk produced from cows that have consumed GMO corn, according to recent testimony by representatives from the Vermont Law School.

“Unless you’re changing the definition of genetically engineered, this bill won’t reach milk,” said Dave Rogers, policy adviser for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. He said the bottom line concern for GMO labeling advocates is genetically modified products.

Still, Sears and Benning worry about equal treatment under the law.

Food producers who are subject to the labeling law may cry foul if others are exempt, Benning said. Sears has worried out loud about a perception of favorable treatment for dairy producers in a state dominated by dairy agriculture.

They agreed to a study of the dairy exemption by the attorney general.

If the state law is litigated before Jan. 15, 2015, when the report is due, lawmakers said they would grant an indefinite extension for the study.

Special fund for litigation

Some committee members expressed reservations about the special fund for litigation, but none were concerned enough to let it affect their votes.

While no longer technically called a legal defense fund, that terminology has been used recently in the bill’s debate. Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, says it sets a precedent.

She worried that it sends a signal that Vermont state government is willing to go out on a limb for monied interests.

Ashe tried in vain to establish a more general litigation fund, unattached to any particular issue such as GMO labeling.

“Isn’t that the attorney general’s budget?” White responded. She said the potential for litigation from the GMO labeling law should be handled like any other state law the attorney general steps up to defend.

Sears was adamant about setting the money aside, however.

The special fund, which is designed to cover administrative costs, will receive money from any court settlements beyond what is already forecast for fiscal year 2015.

Tobacco, Medicaid and other settlement money that is earmarked will not be touched. But if more money than expected is to flow to the General Fund, it would go to the new GMO labeling special fund, instead.

Vermonters and supporters outside the state will be allowed to contribute to the cause. Sears said he has heard from many of the bill’s supporters who have said they would be happy to donate to the litigation fund.


WPTZ: Vermont program recycles farm plastics for free

Farmers generate 500 tons of plastic annually
Mar 23, 2014
Full Article

MONTPELIER, Vt. —A new pilot program in Vermont will allow farmers to recycle the plastics they accumulate for free.

Vermont dairy farms generate about 500 tons of plastic annually from the wrap around their hay bales, feed bunk covers and other uses, but much of it ends up at the landfill, at a cost to farmers. The program will let farmers recycle that plastic, along with greenhouse film, nursery pots and trays, and tubing used by maple syrup producers.

The clean, dry material can be recycled through April in Middlebury, Montpelier, Highgate, Bennington and Hyde Park.

The program was started by Casella Resource Solutions, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and Agrimark/Cabot Creamery Cooperative.


Independent Science News: How “Extreme Levels” of Roundup in Food Became the Industry Norm

March 24, 2014
By Thomas Bøhn and Marek Cuhra
Full Article

Food and feed quality are crucial to human and animal health. Quality can be defined as sufficiency of appropriate minerals, vitamins and fats, etc. but it also includes the absence of toxins, whether man-made or from other sources. Surprisingly, almost no data exist in the scientific literature on herbicide residues in herbicide tolerant genetically modified (GM) plants, even after nearly 20 years on the market.

In research recently published by our laboratory (Bøhn et al. 2014) we collected soybean samples grown under three typical agricultural conditions: organic, GM, and conventional (but non-GM). The GM soybeans were resistant to the herbicide Roundup, whose active ingredient is glyphosate.

We tested these samples for nutrients and other compounds as well as relevant pesticides, including glyphosate and its principal breakdown product, Aminomethylphosponic acid (AMPA). All of the individual samples of GM-soy contained residues of both glyphosate and AMPA, on average 9.0 mg/kg. This amount is greater than is typical for many vitamins. In contrast, no sample from the conventional or the organic soybeans showed residues of these chemicals.

This demonstrates that Roundup Ready GM-soybeans sprayed during the growing season take up and accumulate glyphosate and AMPA. Further, what has been considered a working hypothesis for herbicide tolerant crops, i.e. that, as resistant weeds have spread:

“there is a theoretical possibility that also the level of residues of the herbicide and its metabolites may have increased” (Kleter et al. 2011)

is now shown to be actually happening.

Monsanto (manufacturer of glyphosate) has claimed that residues of glyphosate in GM soy are lower than in conventional soybeans, where glyphosate residues have been measured up to 16-17 mg/kg (Monsanto 1999). These residues, found in non-GM plants, likely must have been due to the practice of spraying before harvest (for desiccation). Another claim of Monsanto’s has been that residue levels of up to 5.6 mg/kg in GM-soy represent

“…extreme levels, and far higher than those typically found” (Monsanto 1999).

Seven out of the 10 GM-soy samples we tested, however, surpassed this “extreme level” (of glyphosate + AMPA), indicating a trend towards higher residue levels. The increasing use of glyphosate on US Roundup Ready soybeans has been documented (Benbrook 2012). The explanation for this increase is the appearance of glyphosate-tolerant weeds (Shaner et al. 2012) to which farmers are responding with increased doses and more applications.

Maximum residue levels (MRLs) of glyphosate in food and feed
Globally, glyphosate-tolerant GM soy is the number one GM crop plant and glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide, with a global production of 620 000 tons in 2008 (Pollak 2011).

In 2011-2012, soybeans were planted on about 30 million hectares in the USA, with Roundup Ready GM soy contributing 93-94 % of the production (USDA 2013). Globally, Roundup Ready GM soybeans contributed to 75 % of the production in 2011 (James 2012).

The legally acceptable level of glyphosate contamination in food and feed, i.e. the maximum residue level (MRL) has been increased by authorities in countries where Roundup-Ready GM crops are produced, or where such commodities are imported. In Brazil, the MRL in soybean was increased from 0.2 mg/kg to 10 mg/kg in 2004: a 50-fold increase, but only for GM-soy. The MRL for glyphosate in soybeans has been increased also in the US and Europe. In Europe, it was raised from 0.1 mg/kg to 20 mg/kg (a 200-fold increase) in 1999, and the same MRL of 20 mg/kg was adopted by the US. In all of these cases, MRL values appear to have been adjusted, not based on new scientific evidence, but pragmatically in response to actual observed increases in the content of residues in glyphosate-tolerant GM soybeans.

Has the toxicity of Roundup been greatly underestimated?
When regulatory agencies assess pesticides for safety they invariably test only the claimed active ingredient.

Nevertheless, these do not necessarily represent realistic conditions since in practice it is the full, formulated herbicide (there are many Roundup formulations) that is used in the field. Thus, it is relevant to consider, not only the active ingredient, in this case glyphosate and its breakdown product AMPA, but also the other compounds present in the herbicide formulation since these enhance toxicity. For example, formulations of glyphosate commonly contain adjuvants and surfactants to stabilize and facilitate penetration into the plant tissue. Polyoxyethylene amine (POEA) and polyethoxylated tallowamine (POE-15) are common ingredients in Roundup formulations and have been shown to contribute significantly to toxicity (Moore et al. 2012).

Our own recent study in the model organism Daphnia magna demonstrated that chronic exposure to glyphosate and a commercial formulation of Roundup resulted in negative effects on several life-history traits, in particular reproductive aberrations like reduced fecundity and increased abortion rate, at environmental concentrations of 0.45-1.35 mg/liter (active ingredient), i.e. below accepted environmental tolerance limits set in the US (0.7 mg/liter) (Cuhra et al. 2013). A reduced body size of juveniles was even observed at an exposure to Roundup at 0.05 mg/liter.

This is in sharp contrast to world-wide regulatory assumptions in general, which we have found to be strongly influenced by early industry studies and in the case of aquatic ecotoxicity assessment, to be based on 1978 and 1981 studies presented by Monsanto claiming that glyphosate is virtually non-toxic in D. magna (McAllister & Forbis, 1978; Forbis & Boudreau, 1981).

Thus a worrisome outlook for health and the environment can be found in the combination of i) the vast increase in use of glyphosate-based herbicides, in particular due to glyphosate-tolerant GM plants, and ii) new findings of higher toxicity of both glyphosate as an active ingredient (Cuhra et al., 2013) and increased toxicity due to contributions from chemical adjuvants in commercial formulations (Annett et al. 2014).

A similar situation can be found for other pesticides. Mesnage et al. (2014) found that 8 out of 9 tested pesticides were more toxic than their declared active principles.

This means that the Accepted Daily Intake (ADI) for humans, i.e. what society finds “admissible” regarding pesticide residues may have been set too high, even before potential combinatorial effects of different chemical exposures are taken into account.

For glyphosate formulations (Roundup), realistic exposure scenarios in the aquatic environment may harm non-target biodiversity from microorganisms, invertebrates, amphibians and fish, (reviewed in Annett et al. 2014) indicating that the environmental consequences of these agrochemicals need to be re-assessed.

Other compositional differences between GM, non-GM, and organic
Our research also demonstrated that different agricultural practices lead to markedly different end products. Data on other measured compositional characteristics could be used to discriminate statistically all individual soy samples (without exception) into their respective agricultural practice background.

Organic soybeans showed the healthiest nutritional profile with more glucose, fructose, sucrose and maltose, significantly more total protein, zinc and less fiber, compared with both conventional and GM-soy. Organic soybeans contained less total saturated fat and total omega-6 fatty acids than both conventional and GM-soy.

Conclusion
Roundup Ready GM-soy accumulates residues of glyphosate and AMPA, and also differs markedly in nutritional composition compared to soybeans from other agricultural practices. Organic soybean samples also showed a more healthy nutritional profile (e.g. higher in protein and lower in saturated fatty acids) than both industrial conventional and GM soybeans.

Lack of data on pesticide residues in major crop plants is a serious gap of knowledge with potential consequences for human and animal health. How is the public to trust a risk assessment system that has overlooked the most obvious risk factor for herbicide tolerant GM crops, i.e. high residue levels of herbicides, for nearly 20 years? If it has been due to lack of understanding, it would be bad. If it is the result of the producer’s power to influence the risk assessment system, it would be worse.


VT Digger: Senators preview legal challenges to GMO labeling law

By Hilary Niles
Mar. 19, 2014
Full Article

State lawmakers got a sneak preview Wednesday of the court battle that likely awaits if they pass a law requiring genetically modified foods sold in Vermont to be labeled.

Industry representatives both for and against a labeling law gave heated testimony at the Statehouse to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where a bill that already passed the House now awaits action.

H.112 would mandate that most packaged foods be labeled if they contain genetically modified organisms. As currently written, dairy products, alcohol and meat, plus restaurant food, would be exempted from the law.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of Senate Judiciary, said he supports the bill, but his biggest concerns are the potential cost of litigation and the dairy exemption.

Assistant Attorney General Bridget Asay testified that the state may spend about $1 million defending the law in court. Even if it is successful, she said it would be hard to recover legal fees. If the state lost, the legal challenge could cost $5 million or more. The estimate includes the state’s costs and potential reimbursement for a victorious plaintiff.

Given the size of the potential price tag, Sears says, he wants to make sure the law is failsafe.

To that end, the hearing Wednesday served as a preview of what challenges opponents may lodge against the pending legislation. Sears said the expert testimony opposing a labeling law comprised the first negative comments his committee had heard, though the Senate Agriculture Committee previously gathered opposing views in their deliberations.

Potential amendments

As senators finalize the bill for a committee vote by the end of March, two major amendments emerge as possibilities: One to require a legal defense fund to cover the costs of litigation, and another to eliminate the dairy exemption for fear it may undermine the bill’s viability in court.

Asay conveyed Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s concerns about a proposal to pass the bill only if a privately funded legal defense fund would be established to cover the expense of legal challenges.

“If the Legislature concludes that a proposed law serves the public interest and should be adopted notwithstanding the possibility of a legal challenge, it should pass the law and assume the cost of its defense,” Sorrell wrote in a letter to Sears.

“Quite frankly that boxes us in,” Sears told Asay at the hearing. He said he thinks it would be irresponsible to set the state up for a potentially costly lawsuit without setting aside the money to pay for it.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said she’s troubled by the prospect of setting a precedent for only supporting what can be backed by wealthy interests.

The legal defense fund idea was not part of the Senate Agriculture bill, Sears acknowledged after the hearing, but he said that doesn’t mean the idea can’t be revisited.

Leaving dairy out of the bill was a strategic move on the part of VPIRG.

“We wanted to make the law about genetically modified foods,” said Falko Schilling, a lobbyist for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “Milk itself is not genetically modified,” Schilling said, even though milk-producing animals may consume GMO grains.

VPIRG’s pro bono legal counsel, the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at the Vermont Law School, testified that case law also supports the exemption. Andrew Homan cited the failed regulation of the growth hormone rBST as a lesson that any object of labeling regulation must be provably different from the products that don’t require labels.

Milk samples from animals that have and have not consumed GMO grains have not been proven compositionally distinct, he said. Therefore, they should be treated the same. Genetically modified ingredients in food products, however, can be detected.

Still, Sears wants assurance.

“Do we have a reason, that can be defended in court, that exempts dairy and not corn chips,” he asked. “Or is it because Vermont is a big dairy state?”

The issue of milk’s composition presages a deeper legal argument behind GMO product labeling.

A potential lawsuit would hinge on several legal arguments: First Amendment rights and protections against compelled speech, “equal protection” laws, rules prohibiting conflict between state and federal laws, and the so-called “dormant commerce” clause saying states can’t make laws that will have adverse impact on interstate commerce.

Beneath these legal questions brews a morass of conflicting opinions, contradictory scientific reports and varying interpretations about federal policy on GMOs — or lack thereof.

The differences are critical because many legal arguments — especially that of compelled speech — revolve around whether or not GMO products are different, and whether the information contained in a label is “fact.”

Wednesday morning, labeling supporters said the federal Food and Drug Administration had not determined whether or not GMO foods are safe. But labeling opponents said the FDA had clearly determined that they are.

Stanley Abramson, an attorney with Arent Fox PLLC who represents the Biotechnology Industry Organization, as well as global agricultural firm Monsanto, is a former lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency and a principal drafter of the federal government’s Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology. Abramson testified by phone from Washington, D.C., to caution against the labeling law.

He said the FDA’s position is that GMO food should be held to the same safety standards as anything raised through traditional breeding techniques. This implies the two groups of food are “substantially similar” and therefore should be treated equally under the law. Any labeling requirement to distinguish GMO food would be misleading, Abramson testified.

Abramson’s position was echoed by Dr. Val Giddings, a geneticist by training who now works as a private consultant and who testified as senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Silver Springs, Md. Giddings and Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with the Consumers Union, differed emphatically on bodies of science surrounding GMO foods.

Giddings testified at length about a lack of credible scientific evidence that GMO foods pose any risks.

The flip side of federal law and policy treating GMO and non-GMO food equally is that there is no mention of GMO products in the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. When it comes to the interplay between federal and state laws, federal statutes hold sway. No state law can preempt a law of the nation.

“The state requirement to label does not conflict with any federal law because there is none,” said Hanses, of the Consumers Union.

The other member of VPIRG’s counsel at the hearing, Laura Murphy, said similar labeling laws bolster the state’s defense on the grounds of interstate commerce.

Should it pass, H.112 would not take effect for one or two years, to allow time for rule making by the state and compliance among food producers. Asay noted, however, that if any parties intend to sue over the law, they likely would file suit very quickly after passage, not waiting for the effective date to roll around.