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Seeds of Rebellion

Vermont becomes a hotbed of resistance to high-tech agribiz.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2014
Stephanie Kraft Photo

It was the “Bring it on” law—a law that came out of the Vermont Legislature with a built-in weapon against an expected challenge.

Vermont’s GMO labeling law, passed this spring, required that most foods and seeds offered for sale in the state be labeled if they contained genetically manipulated elements. It also provided for a legal defense fund, the Vermont Food Fight Fund, in case the state were sued by the food industry and large agricultural firms engaged in the sale of genetically engineered seeds.

Attorneys general in some states might have been reluctant to see a law passed that would so obviously be a red flag to a well-capitalized industry, but Vermont’s attorney general Bill Sorrell was nothing daunted. “Our office did go before the legislature and testify that we expected a legal challenge, and laid out the possible risks that the law would face,” Assistant Attorney General Megan Shafritz, who heads up Sorrell’s civil litigation department, told the Advocate. “But our office is absolutely prepared to defend this law against all challenges, and we’re not afraid to do that. I think the Legislature was responsible and carrying out what they felt our citizens wanted.”

To no one’s surprise, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (of which Monsanto is a member), the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the Association of Manufacturers have now filed suit to overturn the Vermont law. The named defendants include Sorrell, Gov. Peter Shumlin, Department of Health commissioner Harry Chen, and James Reardon, commissioner of the Department of Finance and Management.

Connecticut and Maine also have GMO labeling laws, and another is pending in Massachusetts; no litigation cannon has been aimed at those states. But Vermont’s law is different. The laws passed or pending in the other New England states require that several other contiguous states pass similar laws before those now passed would go into effect, and that the population of all those states total 20 million. Vermont’s law has no external trigger; it would go into effect in 2016 independently of the passage or failure of any other GMO labeling law in any other state. Because it has no trigger, Vermont’s law is the first of its kind in the country.

However, Vermont’s law would add to the number of states necessary to trigger the implementation of laws in other states, such as Massachusetts. For the industry, the moment is strategic: a GMO law is being mulled in New York, and if it passed, that would add another state contiguous with Connecticut and Massachusetts—and with a population of 19 million—to the critical mass of Northeastern states with GMO labeling laws. Even before it filed suit against Vermont, the food industry was pushing a law in Congress that would prohibit mandatory GMO labeling and nullify state GMO labeling laws.

It makes sense that Vermont would be a leader of the resistance to agricultural monopolies. The tradition of small farming runs deep in this state, which has more direct farm-to-consumer sales per capita—more farm stands, farmers’ markets and CSA (comunity-supported agriculture) farms—than any state in the country. Organic sales also constitute a larger percentage of farm sales here than in any other state.

In Vermont, the preferences of many consumers as well as farmers are for food grown in a transparent, decentralized way that favors stakeholders rather than shareholders. Many Vermonters “have been around a long time and understand how difficult it is to make a living as a farmer and what difference that connection to the consumer makes—that understanding of how people farm their produce and their products,” said Sabine Rhyne, community relations manager for the Brattleboro Food Coop.

So far, most of the arguments pro and con about GMO labeling have centered around food safety, but another issue underlies the controversy about GMO foods and the labeling of them: the issue of plant patenting and monoculture. GMO foods and GMO seeds are products whose DNA is their creators’ property; consumers who purchase them are buying into a system that has drastically restricted the variety of plant material available for use as food and/or medicine. Today 10 multinational companies own 73 percent of the world’s commercial seeds. So much seed material is corporate property, according to seed farmer Tom Stearns of Wolcott, Vt., that “the major contemporary challenge that organic and public seed breeders face is a critical shortage of varieties that haven’t been patented.”

But there is a growing rebellion against the patenting of plant matter, especially seeds. At the cutting edge of it is Stearns’ company, High Mowing Organic Seeds. High Mowing has been in business since 1996, when Stearns began selling his own organically produced seed and found that he had tapped into a gusher of pent-up demand. High Mowing now produces 600 “heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid” varieties of seeds: fruit, vegetable, herb and flower seeds. Many are grown on High Mowing’s own 40 acres; others come from vendors all over the country who grow no genetically engineered seeds. In the Valley, High Mowing’s seeds are sold at Brattleboro Food Coop, Monadnock Food Coop in Keene, N.H. and River Valley Market in Northampton.

This spring, High Mowing became one of only two companies in the country (the other is Wild Garden Seed of Philomath, Ore.) to sell seeds produced by the new Open Source Seed Initiative, a venture created by University of Wisconsin researcher Irwin Goldman. The OSSI was formed to counteract the concentration of seeds in the hands of a few companies. So far it has created a “protected commons” of 37 seed varieties that are released on condition that no property rights can be attached to them or to plants bred from them.

In the long run, the role of companies like High Mowing may be decisive in the conflict between high-tech corporate agriculture and farming based on natural systems. Goldman’s dream is that the Open Source Seed Initiative will grow into an agricultural movement that will someday produce “open-source” foods—foods that would be labeled as such when they appear for sale in grocery stores.

As Vermont prepares to square off with the food industry in court, Ben and Jerry’s is skimming a part of the proceeds from its recently renamed Food Fight Fudge Brownie ice cream to donate to the legal defense fund; the Organic Consumers Association is harvesting money for the fund; and the state has mounted an attractive website (http://www.foodfightfundvt.org) to lure donations. Meanwhile, the Open Source Seed Initiative is fighting the same battle on another front.

“The Open Source Seed Initiative is the first definitive step towards reclaiming our access to plant genetic material, which has largely been privatized by the same corporations that develop GMOs,” says Stearns. “GMO agriculture is already losing ground as consumers begin speaking out against GMOs and in favor of labeling, but we also need a positive alternative. Unpatented organic and open source seeds are our most powerful tools for rebuilding a healthy, sustainable food supply.”•

 

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