It's been half a decade since the pollen dust of genetically engineered crops first began blowing across Vermont's farmlands. It's been just five months since the Agency of Agriculture got a handle on how many farms are producing it. And only now is the state trying to set boundaries on where the wind may carry it.
Critics of genetically modified organisms - plants whose DNA has been altered to resist herbicides and produce higher yields - suspect that GMOs have made inroads into Vermont agriculture ever since biotech companies began licensing them to farmers in the mid-1990s. But in April, Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Steve Kerr revealed how deeply they've taken root. Currently, 44 percent of all crops planted in Vermont are genetically modified, a higher figure than was previously believed. Acknowledg-ing that the genetic genie is out of the bottle, Kerr convened an advisory committee to draft guidelines whereby GMO and non-GMO farms could peacefully coexist.
This committee of farmers, lobbyists, lawmakers, environmentalists and other industry experts met in Montpelier last week for the third of six scheduled meetings. But what was soon apparent was how little common ground exists between them. Even before discussions were underway to draft "best management practices" for farming GM and non-GM crops side by side, critics were already voicing doubt that coexistence is scientifically achievable - or even desirable. They wanted to know if it's possible to prevent genetic drift, the migration of GM seeds or pollen from one field to another. And if not, who should bear financial responsibility for damages caused when GM crops begin sprouting in non-GM fields?
For Vermont's certified organic farms, which represent the fastest growing sector of the state's farm economy, the stakes couldn't be higher. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture adopted guidelines for certifying organic growers. Although the USDA will not automatically decertify an organic farm if GM contamination occurs in its fields, organic growers say that's irrelevant once consumers lose confidence in their products.
"Every store that I sell my yogurt to wants a GM-free affidavit from me," said Jack Lazor, an organic farmer from Westfield and a member of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. "So maybe the USDA says that I can still sell it, but there's no place that wants to buy it because people are scared to death of this stuff."
The most likely solution to be adopted in Vermont is the establishment of buffer zones between GM and non-GM fields. Presumably, buffer zones lie fallow or contain crops that cannot be contaminated by genetic drift. But buffer zones also raise as many questions as they answer. First, how large will they need to be and who will make that determination? "We hear a lot of different things. I've heard talk of buffers from 75 feet to 30 miles," said Jim Bushey, owner of Bourdeau and Bushey, a Middlebury agribusiness. "If we really want to coexist, we have to make an all-out effort not to exaggerate and be honest and upfront with one another."
Organic farmer and state Rep. David Zuckerman (P-Burlington) pointed out that any standards Vermont adopts could have trouble keeping pace with rapidly emerging biotechnologies. What happens, for instance, when new species of GMO crops hit the market? Will each new crop, or family of crops, require a different size buffer zone? And which farmer will have to remove tillable land from production to create that buffer? GM farmers say it should be the organic farmers, whose crops require special certification. Organic growers argue that it's GM seeds that are soiling the gene pool.
Then there's the issue of liability. Obviously, no one wants Vermont farmers suing one another over genetic drift. But conventional farmers who plant GM crops and strictly follow manufacturers' directions say they shouldn't be held liable for damages they cannot realistically prevent. And what happens when a new GM crop is introduced whose pollen is carried not by wind but by bees? GMO critics suggest that all liability should fall upon the manufacturer.
But others contend that it's unrealistic to impose zero tolerance on the spread of a genetic material once it's released into the environment. "We're all breathing the same air in this room and society has made decisions about what we can and cannot put into the air," argued Vermont Farm Bureau president Clark Hinsdale III. "We can't just have a zero-tolerance standard on things that involve common assets like air and water."
"Perhaps what you're suggesting is that farmers who want to plant GMOs would be required to have permits if they're going to be impinging on their neighbors' production practices," suggested Ben Davis with Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
"No, I wasn't suggesting that," Hinsdale countered.
Others argue that the only way to ensure that GMO pollen doesn't spread where it doesn't belong is to impose a moratorium on GMO crops in Vermont. But that, according to GMO proponents, is also unreasonable. "From the Farm Bureau's point of view, coexistence [of GM and non-GM crops] is more than a goal. It's a fundamental precept of our democracy," said Hinsdale.
Bushey agreed. "We will try to be cooperative with your needs," he said, addressing the organic farmers. "But if we try to bring this thing to a situation where there's a government review for the sale of every GMO, it will be a dogfight."
And that, said Secretary Kerr, will lead to laws being written by the courts, not the Legislature. And it'll be the organic farmers, he predicted, who will lose that dogfight.