Is Vermont's Governor Surrendering to Monsanto?
By Will Allen, Cedar Circle Farm, Vermont, and Ronnie Cummins, Organic Consumers Association
Alternet, April 19th, 2012
Straight to the Source
Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin has less than two weeks to either stand with the 90% of his constituents who support a mandatory labeling bill for genetically engineered foods - or cave in to Monsanto's threat to sue the state if legislators pass H.722.
If the Governor's words this past week are any indication, he's already surrendered to Monsanto. But Vermonters, not known for backing down from a fight, are challenging legislators to take on the biotech industry. They're even offering to raise money for the state's defense.
Last week, thousands of Vermonters flooded the Governor's office with petitions, phone calls and emails, to make the case for GMO labeling of all food sold in Vermont and to demand a vote on the bill. Under Vermont's constitution, the Governor can extend the state's legislative session indefinitely, ultimately forcing a vote on the bill. If he doesn't extend the session, or urge legislators to vote on the bill, it will die in committee.
But while supporters were emailing and phoning and signing, Governor Shumlin was sending out a canned response to the thousands of supporters who emailed his office. In the Governor's own words:
"Thank you for contacting me about labeling genetically modified foods. I agree with those who advocate for clear labeling of genetically modified foods. GMO labeling makes sense and would give Vermonters key information about their food choices. However, we know from attempts to pass similar legislation in the past that such a requirement would not stand up to federal legal scrutiny. I don't think it is fair to ask Vermonters to bear the burden of the cost of those legal challenges."
On April 12, in the hope once again of forcing a vote, more than 300 people packed the Vermont statehouse for public testimony on H.722, with more than one hundred of them testifying - every single one in favor - of passing the bill. When legislators brought up the burden of a potential legal battle, supporters of the bill called for a legal defense fund - not a retreat.
However, a bill that once appeared destined to pass on the merits of scientific evidence, overwhelming public support, and support of the majority of Vermont's progressive legislators, now appears doomed - unless Vermont voters succeed in changing the Governor's mind.
A brief history of Vermont H.722
In mid-December, a coalition of farmers and Vermont NGOs asked the state to revive a GMO labeling bill that in 2001 had stalled in the house agricultural committee. Supporters proposed revising the bill's language to conform to language in a similar bill currently being proposed in California, through a citizens' ballot initiative process. Both Carolyn Partridge, chairman of the House agricultural committee, and Will Stevens, a member of the agriculture committee, responded favorably. Several legislators stepped forward to sponsor and co-sponsor the bill.
Despite the support of Partridge, Stevens and the majority of Vermont voters, the committee didn't even begin hearings on the bill until March. Finally, during the first round of testimony the legislature heard from pro-labeling witnesses including organic farmers concerned about seed contamination, consumers worried about food safety, and scientists who refuted Monsanto's claims that genetically engineered food is perfectly safe. Still, no vote. Instead, the committee called for more hearings.
Although Partridge publicly voiced support, privately she told Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, that H.722 was a "hot potato" that she got "stuck" with because no other committee wanted to host it, according to Stander.
How does a bill backed by strong scientific evidence and 90% of the voters become a "hot potato"? When Monsanto threatens to sue the state if it passes.
It's now common knowledge that Vermont officials are worried about the cost of a legal battle with Monsanto. Last week, the online newspaper VTdigger.org reported: "Rachel Lattimore, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who has represented the Biotechnology Industry Association, Monsanto, and other biotechnology companies, told the committee and one of its attorneys that Vermont would face a lawsuit from the industry if it passed this bill."
Monsanto's intimidation tactics appear to have succeeded. However, Vermont voters continue to pressure Governor Shumlin to sit down with his lawyers and the lawyers who drafted Bill H722 to determine, after a careful legal analysis, if he wants to promote the bill or obstruct it.
In support of Vermont farmers and consumers, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) has launched its own offensive, in the form of a legal defense fund for Vermont and any other state Monsanto threatens to sue over mandatory GMO labeling laws. The OCA is a nationwide organization of organic farmers and consumers that has fought for consumers' right to know about GMOs for more than a decade. According to Katherine Paul, OCA fundraising coordinator, "Over the past four days we've already received commitments of more than $50,000 to defend Vermont or any other state that passes a GMO labeling bill. The only way to back down a legal bully like Monsanto or the Biotechnology Industry Organization is with a bigger legal stick and the moral high ground. Let's make sure we have both of those."
Fifty countries have passed GMO labeling laws, in large part based upon peer-reviewed studies suggesting that GMO crops and foods are hazardous to animal and human health and the environment. Recent GMO feeding studies have found liver abnormalities in 30.8% of the female test animals, kidney abnormalities in 43.5% of the male test animals, and a thickening of the stomach lining in almost all the tests. These results and results from numerous other tests were troubling enough for all these other countries to label genetically engineered foods so that there was traceability and so that consumers could make a choice.
Currently in the U.S., consumers are not allowed to choose whether they want to be part of a vast GMO feeding experiment. If they become ill or have an allergic reaction to a food product that has been genetically engineered, they cannot trace it back to the source. Consumers have no way of knowing which foods contain genetically modified ingredients and which do not. Most have no idea that 75% or more of non-organic processed foods do contain GMOs. Even fewer understand that thousands of foods labeled or advertised as "natural" or "all natural" contain genetically modified ingredients.
Vermont, perhaps more than any other state, has traditionally done the right thing to protect its citizens and the environment. This time fear of Monsanto and the other gene giants has sapped the courage and commitment of the current Governor and the legislature.
Please call Governor Shumlin (802 828-3333) and tell him to stand up to Monsanto bullying. Tell him to publicly speak out and encourage the House and Senate to speed up the review process, pass the GMO labeling bill, and sign it before the legislative session ends on May 1.
And please support the OCA's "Millions against Monsanto" campaign so that Governor Shumlin and all the other states can feel secure in fighting Monsanto in court.
If the Governor and legislators surrender now, they will perpetuate claims that progressive politicians are good at promising change, but lack the backbone to follow through on their rhetoric. If they show real courage and pass H.722, they will send a strong message to Monsanto and Big Biotech that the growing Millions against Monsanto movement will do whatever it takes - including mounting a legal defense - to stop the corporate bullying and take back our food supply.
Will Allen is the co-manager of Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, Vermont. He is also the Author of The War on Bugs , a history of farm pesticides and fertilizers since 1810. He is on the policy advisory boards of The Organic Consumers Association and Willing Hands. He has attended all of the agriculture committee hearings on H-722, where the testimony referred to above was delivered.
Ronnie Cummins is the National Director of the Organic Consumers Association and its Millions against Monsanto campaign. He also is a member of the Steering Committee of the California Ballot Initiative to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, and co-author of the book, Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers.
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