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After Eight Years, GMO Labeling Bill Makes Headway; The Sweet Life, Vegan-Style; Schools Struggle to Meet State Funding Requirements; Student Athletes Sue the NCAA

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

After Eight Years, GMO Labeling Bill Makes Headway

A GMO labeling bill first filed by state representative Ellen Story (D-Amherst) eight years ago, and co-sponsored by Rep. John Scibak (D-South Hadley), has been reported out of the state Legislature’s Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.

Story first filed the bill eight years ago, and the fact that it’s finally moved out of committee, she says, “feels terrific.” The bill must now go to the House Ways and Means Committee before it can make its way to the floor.

The bill would require foods for human consumption, and seeds used to grow food for human consumption, to to be labeled “Produced with Genetic Engineering.” Genetically modified animals would have to be labeled as well, though not animals fed or medicated with substances containing genetically engineered elements if the animals themselves are not genetically modified.

GMO labeling activists are disappointed that the bill—like GMO labeling bills already passed in Connecticut and Maine—has a so-called “trigger” clause stipulating that it can’t be implemented until several nearby states implement a similar law. “We would like to not have a trigger clause, but that’s unlikely with the political climate,” said Martin Dagoberto of Massachusetts Right to Know GMOs. But, said Dagoberto, the bill as reported out of committee is “definitely a good place to start. We’ll have opportunities to amend it.”

Other Western Massachusetts legislators supporting GMO labeling are Sen. Don Humason (R-Westfield), Rep. Denise Andrews (D-Orange), Rep. Peter Kocot (D-Northampton), Rep. Todd Smola (R-Palmer) and Rep. Aaron Vega (D-Holyoke).

In Massachusetts, the GMO labeling issue has given rise to a disagreement between groups of farmers. Many farmers, especially organic growers, have been involved for years, along with environmental and consumer organizations like MassPIRG, in the battle to get GMO foods labeled. The American Farm Bureau, however, has joined a coalition of food industry groups that have insisted that the problem could only be solved at the national level, and that the federal government should declare state labeling laws invalid (“Industry Would Preempt State GMO Labeling Laws,” January 21, 2014, www.valleyadvocate.com).

In Massachusetts, the state Farm Bureau Federation’s director of government affairs is Brad Mitchell, who was a spokesman for Monsanto before he took the post with the Farm Bureau here. Last year, Mitchell wrote the Natural Resources Committee to oppose another GMO labeling bill, one filed by Smola. The arguments in Mitchell’s letter seemed to mirror the position of the industry coalition—which includes the Grocery Manufacturers of America—that wants to see state labeling laws pre-empted at the federal level.

“GMO labeling requirements specific to Massachusetts would put higher costs on Commonwealth farms, food products, grocers, restaurants—and, ultimately, consumers—than in other states,” Mitchell wrote the Committee. “The utility and benefit of GMO labeling is questionable at best. If it is to occur, it should occur at the federal level.”

The difference of opinion between the Farm Bureau and farmers who favor GMO labeling, however, is not acrimonious, according to Jack Kittredge, policy director for the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. “The Farm Bureau does many things very well,” said Kittredge, who explains that the Farm Bureau “goes to bat for individual farmers who have regulatory problems.”

However, he explained, in the matter of GMO labeling, the Natural Resources Committee needed to be disabused of the idea that the Farm Bureau represented all farmers. “There are many farmers, both organic and conventional, who support GMO labeling,” he said.

Kittredge said NOFA Massachusetts is “very gratified” that a labeling bill has finally moved out of the Natural Resources Committee. “I think there was such an outcry and so much interest this year” that the Committee was motivated to get the bill moving, he said, adding, “It’s not a bill that we’re totally happy with—we wish it didn’t have a trigger clause—but that’s minor compared with the fact that it’s out.”•

 

The Sweet Life, Vegan-Style

All kinds of foodies have their festivals: wine and cheese lovers, devotees of haute cuisine, fans of ethnic cuisines, folks who like to pig out on barbecue. This year brings a new kind of food festival to the Valley: the Valley Vegfest. It’s a celebration for people who know or want to learn about vegan dishes and who are concerned about the effects, on animals and the environment, of mainstream ways of eating.

Lots of cooking and tasting will be going on at this event, as well as information sharing about such subjects as how to “veganize” your favorite foods; the effects of food technologies that use chemicals and genetically manipulated elements; and even vegan feeding of pets. Among the speakers that will provide expertise are Hannah Kaminsky, whose Easy as Vegan Pie and other cookbooks have amped up the appeal of the vegan approach, and Jenny Brown of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, a farm in the Catskills that gives animals rescued from stockyards and factory farms a safe home. Free and open to the public, the Vegfest is sponsored by a coalition of groups including Raw Food Central, Cafe Evolution, Christine’s Bean Sprout Juice Bar and Cafe, River Valley Market and the Massachusetts Animal Rights Coalition.

Valley Vegfest takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 29 at J.F.K. Middle School in Northampton. An after-party follows at Cafe Evolution in Florence from 7 to 9 p.m.• —SK


Schools Struggle to Meet State Funding Requirements

In the past four years, the town of Ware has spent approximately $2.6 million less on its public schools than is required by the state—and at this time it does not have a feasible plan to put a stop to this trend.

According to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Ware’s spending was $396,330 less than required this year, $653,619 less last year, $955,000 less the year before, and $593,000 less three years ago.

Under the 1993 Education Reform Act, Massachusetts sets a minimum budget for public schools in the commonwealth in order to “assure fair and adequate minimum per student funding.” The Catch-22 for school districts: those that don’t fund their schools up to state-mandated levels lose a portion of their state aid.

The law does allow some leeway for struggling towns. If what a town spends on its schools does not meet the state’s standard but is within 5 percent of it, there is no penalty. The shortfall is, instead, added onto the next year’s requirement, which has been the case each of the last several years in Ware, and seems destined to happen once again.

If the shortfall is greater than 5 percent of the required total, the town must rectify that or the difference is taken out of the Chapter 70 school aid it receives from the state for the next fiscal year.

Palmer incurred this penalty earlier in the year, although town officials report that this happened because of a mismarked form, which prevents the town from including the funds it appropriates for health insurance for retired teachers in its net school spending. According to DESE figures, Palmer schools were funded at 93.9 percent of the required amount last year and budgeted for 92.9 percent of the required amount this year.

Also listed by the state as underfunded last year were Orange, funded at 97.5 percent of the state requirement but budgeted up to 103.1 percent of the requirement for the current academic year; Springfield, funded at 98.8 percent last year but budgeted up to 100.0 percent this year; and Northampton’s Smith Vocation School, funded at 75.2 percent last year but budgeted up to 94.5 percent this year.

Valley school districts able to fund their schools well beyond what the state required last year were Rowe (270 percent, among the highest in the state); Pelham (203.5 percent); Leverett (187.4 percent); Erving (168.4 percent); Shutesbury (166.6 percent); Pioneer Valley Regional in Northfield (162.1 percent); and Amherst, not including Amherst-Pelham Regional (153.7 percent).•

Student Athletes Sue the NCAA

An antitrust class action lawsuit has been filed by high-profile sports labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler on behalf of student athletes against the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association) and its five wealthiest conferences (Big Ten, Pac 10, Big 12, ACC and SEC). The suit aims to challenge the amateur status of men’s college basketball and football players.

“In no other business—and college sports is big business—would it ever be suggested that the people who are providing the essential services work for free,” Kessler told ESPN. “Only in big-time college sports is that line drawn.” One of the most respected sports labor attorneys, Kessler has was instrumental in forming NFL free agency, and has represented many high-profile athletes, including Tom Brady.

The suit comes less than two months after Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter and former collegiate athletes—including UMass grad Luke Bonner—formed the College Athletes Players Association, which hopes to unionize collegiate athletics (“The NCAA vs. Student Athletes,” March 13, 2014, www.valleyadvocate.com).

“The effort to create more of a voice for college athletes in revenue-generating sports is a major issue that’s existed for a while,” Bonner told the Advocate. “There’s no voice or vote from the players who drive this multi-billion dollar industry.”

The suit seeks no damages, but challenges the NCAA’s “false claims of amateurism,” charging that those governing college sports “have lost their way far down the road of commercialism, signing multi-billion-dollar contracts wholly disconnected from the interests of ‘student athletes,’ who are barred from receiving the benefits of competitive markets for their services even though their services generate these massive revenues.”•

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