Vermont likes to be first, even if it is one of the smaller states. Vermont was the first state to ban slavery in 1777; the first to endow a state university, first to endow a land grant university, first to build a commercial canal, first state to vote for Civil Unions, first to ban fracking, first to pass a labeling law for GMO milk products, and the first state to require the labeling of many GMO products in 2014.
Sadly, it is also the first state to lose all three major GMO labeling efforts.
The 1994 Vermont labeling law, which required labeling of milk products from cows injected with rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), was struck down in 1996 by the Second Circuit Court because the way the attorney general defended the bill violated the First Amendment and the Commerce Clause. Strike number one.
In 2005, Rural Vermont led a campaign with a broad coalition of farmers for a farmer protection act designed to put the responsibility for GMO contamination on the seed producer instead of the farmer who was trespassed on. Both houses of the Vermont legislature passed the bill (with the Senate voting 26-1 in favor of the bill). Republican Governor Jim Douglass paid his debts to big dairy and promptly vetoed the bill, leaving farmers vulnerable to GMO pollen drift and seed spills. Strike number two.
In 2011, legislators proposed a GMO labeling bill but it was poorly written and tabled by the Senate Agriculture Committee. In 2012, a second bill was proposed and a coalition of NGOs and farmers formed to promote the bill and were successful in getting it voted out of the agriculture committee, but was too late to be considered by other House committees or the full Senate before the end of the biennium.
In 2013, the same bill with a few modifications was reintroduced in the new biennium. Added to the coalition of Rural Vermont, Vermont PIRG, Northeast Organic Farmer’s Association of Vermont, and Cedar Circle Farm, was the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, Ben & Jerry’s, New Chapter, and the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. After hours of back and forth testimony, the bill was voted out positively 114-30 by the House and sent to the Senate.
In 2014, the Senate took up the bill and finally voted it out of the agriculture, the judiciary, and the appropriations committees with significant majorities, and was finally voted out of the entire Senate with a vote of 28-2.
While it was heartening for those of us working on the bill to see legislators change their minds and support GMO labeling and states-rights by huge majorities, we knew it was a result of the relentless pressure that their constituents had put them under. Governor Peter Shumlin was also under grass-roots pressure for the three years of the campaign, and finally came over to be a supporter and a promoter, and signed the bill in a celebratory fashion.
In spite of Vermont’s efforts to get GMO labeling and protection from contamination in the state, the U.S. Senate, in a rare moment of legislative effort, came together to take care of their donors. Earlier this month, more than 60 senators voted to protect their corporate sponsors and deny Vermonters the right to know if GMOs are in our food. They voted to basically override Vermont’s labeling law, just days into its enactment. Strike number three for Vermont.
But we’re not out. Because, while we got a harsh lesson in the ugly, underbelly of our corporate democracy, the genie of public discontent is out of the bottle. And the public is well educated on GMOs, thanks to the battles and debates over labeling them in many different parts of the nation. It’s no accident that polls consistently show that 93% of U.S. citizens want GMO products labeled.
But the U.S. Senators and the House members before them ignored their constituents and, instead, did the dirty work of protecting the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, DuPont, and Crop Life—the chemical poisoners and GMO producers who don’t want you to know what is in the food you buy.
We’re far from out. We’re now poised to keep the organizing momentum and take our campaigns to the marketplace, where we will demand more than disclosure, but also a transition away from toxic agriculture and toward a regenerative future. They may have succeeded in knocking down our labeling laws, but the grassroots movement is alive and well, if not even more energized by the sting of legislative betrayal.
In Vermont, we’re rolling up our sleeves and taking a hard look at the industrial dairying that dominates our agriculture. We’ve already released our first detailed report, Vermont’s GMO Legacy, and we’ve begun discussions with Ben & Jerry’s about transitioning its farmers to organic and regenerative techniques. And next we’ll bring Cabot Creamery into the discussion. With regenerative commitments from just these two Vermont dairy corporations, a vast majority of Vermont’s farms will be on the side of solutions, rather than problems.
It’s time for a new Vermont “first,” the first state to replace toxic and climate-threatening agriculture with the organic, regenerative methods that are not only possible, but necessary. For the planet, regeneration now.