By now you may have heard about the industry-sponsored trips for Vermont lawmakers to visit Monsanto's state-of-the-art facilities that develop genetically modified organisms. Several weeks ago about 40 lawmakers, as well as farmers, state regulators and other interested folks made the six-hour trip to Mystic, Connecticut, where they spent two days touring the company's biotech labs and talking to the scientists who tinker with the fundamental building blocks of the nation's food supply. The trip comes just as the state is considering rules to manage the coexistence of GMOs and traditional crops.
Margaret Laggis is a lobbyist with the Council for Biotechnology Information, the Washington, D.C.-based firm that sponsored the tours. "The intention of the trip was not to change anybody's mind on how they felt about this technology," Laggis says. "It was really to give them the scientific background so that when people are talking to them about the issue, at least they'll have some idea in their mind what people are talking about."
The two-day junkets, on November 5-6 and 13-14, weren't luxurious -- reportedly, the legislators traveled on a bus with a faulty heating system and were treated to bag lunches both days. But critics argue that the $10,000 price tag would have been better spent bringing the scientists to Montpelier to testify publicly before the Legislature.
The majority of folks who made the trip were already predisposed to support GMOs, Laggis says. But others, like Rep. David Zuckerman (P-Burlington), an organic farmer and vocal opponent of genetically engineered crops, says he decided to go anyway and found the trip "fascinating." Still, nothing he saw or heard changed his mind about GMOs' potential dangers. "Science doesn't exist in a vacuum," Zuckerman says. "We can create all kinds of things in a lab. We have created things for agriculture in the past that we have since learned were detrimental to humans and the Earth, regardless of their economic benefit."
Others, like Rep. Floyd Nease (D-Eden/ Johnson), opted not to go despite the many questions he has for Monsanto. For one, he wants to know why the company opposes GMO-seed labeling and independent safety testing of genetically engineered crops. He also wonders how many farmers Monsanto has sued after their patented seeds drifted into neighboring fields. As Nease puts it, "There's nothing Monsanto can say to a Vermont legislator at the lab in Mystic that Vermont farmers ought not to hear for themselves."
Speaking of genetic drift, Congress may have finally found a way of dealing with the tens of thousands of undocumented farm workers who enter the United States illegally each year. And the answer isn't building more security fences along the U.S.-Mexican border or launching more Department of Homeland Security raids on Vermont dairy farms. Congressional lawmakers have agreed on a bipartisan bill that would allow illegal farm workers to apply for temporary resident status if they can prove they have been employed in the United States for at least 100 days over a 12-month period. The workers would then be eligible for permanent-resident status and get their "green cards" after three to six years.
The bill, entitled "The Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act of 2003," is supported by a broad coalition of groups ranging from the AFL-CIO and the United Farm Workers of America to the American Farm Bureau. It's seen as a major compromise on one of the most hotly debated immigration issues. The legislation would also apply to so-called H-2A "guestworkers" -- temporary foreign laborers such as the ones hired seasonally to pick apples in Vermont's orchards.
For decades, foreign-born laborers have been the backbone of American agriculture, filling the most undesirable jobs at the lowest wages. Though the vast majority of them work in southern and western states, in recent years they have also been cropping up on dairy farms in Vermont and northern New York, where there's a shortage of domestic workers willing to accept such low pay. And while no one can say for sure how many undocumented workers are in Vermont, one agricultural expert estimates that as many as 75 percent of all farm laborers in the region are in the country illegally.
Dependence on illegal aliens creates problems for farmers and workers alike. Dairy farmers who have unwittingly hired undocumented workers have awakened in the morning to discover their entire crew has been arrested and deported the night before. Likewise, illegal workers, many of whom speak little or no English, often put in long hours for meager pay, live in substandard housing and suffer from isolation, intimidation, abuse and constant fear of arrest and deportment.
Advocates for foreign workers say this legislation will go a long way to getting vital social services to a sector of the population that is all but invisible to most Vermonters. Luis Tijerina is a founder of the Vermont Campesinos Alliance, an advocacy group for Vermont's Spanish-speaking farm laborers. "In this crucial step to giving these workers the opportunity to become legal immigrants, we are acknowledging the historical heritage of this nation," and "the right to migrate to America and have the privileges and opportunities that are inalienable rights of all Americans who work and live in this country." Passage of the bill is expected within the next few weeks.