WASHINGTON, D.C. — Many farmers choose not to plant seeds containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. In Vermont, the legislature made it a lot easier for them to exercise that preference in 2004 when it passed the Right to Know Act, which requires ag supply distributors to label GMO seeds. Now, some agricultural advocacy groups are voicing alarm that a paragraph in the 2007 Federal Farm bill could have the power to repeal such state laws.
Vermont has been at the forefront of the U.S. anti-GMO movement — which is still fledgling compared to say, some European countries, where consumer-protection laws severely limit commercial use. At least 83 Vermont towns have passed anti-GMO resolutions in recent years, but they’re non-binding. In 2006 Governor Douglas vetoed a farmer protection act that would have allowed Vermont farmers to sue multinational corporations for GMO contamination — a process whereby GMO seeds infiltrate non-GMO pastures or fields.
The minimal protection Vermont does enjoy could be threatened by a provision under consideration by the U.S. House. As worded, activists say it could allow the United States Department of Agriculture to invalidate the Green Mountain State’s existing GMO labeling requirement. It could also override related state- and county-level GMO regulations in states such as California, Washington, Minnesota, Arkansas, Missouri, North Dakota and Indiana.
The whole controversy began in the breadbasket. On May 24, Iowa Rep. Leonard Boswell, a Democrat, added a short paragraph — Section 123 — to the House Agriculture Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Subcommittee’s portion of the farm bill. The section would bar states, counties and towns from making laws prohibiting the “use” of a commodity that the Secretary of Agriculture has either “inspected and passed” or “determined to be of non-regulated status.” Reached by telephone, a Boswell spokesperson told Seven Days that the representative had no specific motivation for introducing the legislation.
With 38 words total, the paragraph is so small that you could almost miss it. In fact, almost everyone did. The folks who noticed it, according to Rural Vermont Director Amy Shollenberger, “sort of stumbled on it completely by accident.”
Rural Vermont is a grassroots advocacy group based in Montpelier that has been working on GMO issues since the late 1980s. It was quick to join 29 other like-minded organizations around the country last week in publicly denouncing the plan. Their statement, issued by the Washington, D.C.-based Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering, expresses concern that the federal measure “provides far too much exclusive discretionary authority to the Secretary of Agriculture.”
Shollenberger says that for her constituency, states’ rights are the heart of the issue: “It’s more about the pre-emption of state and local entities to say how they operate.”
David Rogers, Northeast Organic Farming Association’s Vermont farm policy advisor, agrees. He says Section 123 is “basically the federal government telling localities and the state that they can’t make laws against things that [the USDA] has approved” and adds that the provision would endanger consumers everywhere, not just in agricultural areas. “Obviously, it’s something to protect large corporate interests,” Rogers concludes.
How will Vermont’s congressional delegation vote on Section 123, assuming it passes the House Agricultural Committee? Senator Patrick Leahy’s office did not respond as of press time. Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch issued statements condemning Boswell’s provision.
“Congressman Welch is disappointed to learn of provisions in the farm bill that would reduce states’ ability to set their own policies,” writes Welch spokesman Andrew Savage. “During the writing of this year’s farm bill, the congressman will not just be fighting for Vermont’s regulatory authority, but also for farm policies that support the diverse family farms that are critical to our farmers, our communities, and our local food supply.”
This potential setback for anti-GMO groups comes in the wake of some judicial victories. In May, a federal court ordered the USDA to conduct a full environmental-impact assessment of a GMO crop. That landmark decision echoed an earlier one in which the court ruled, for the first time ever, that the USDA had failed to obey environmental permitting laws when approving GMO crops.
But Section 123 has the potential to give the USDA what Farmer to Farmer organizer Bill Wenzel of Wisconsin calls “unprecedented” power over local policy makers.
“This kind of thing can raise mayhem,” warns NOFA’s Rogers. “Just because there aren’t specific things right now that you might be able to point to, certainly there are a lot of possibilities down the road, and it’s a bad precedent.”