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Seeds of Change

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The growing movement in Vermont to halt the spread of genetically modified organisms took another step forward last week. The Vermont House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill that would mandate manufacturers of genetically engineered seeds to label their products as such. "The Farmers' Right-to-Know Act," H-777, legally defines GE seeds as different from conventional seeds and requires biotech companies to report their annual sales to the state Agency of Agriculture. The bill, which is the first of its kind in the country, is expected to pass in the Senate and be signed into law by Governor Jim Douglas.

A second measure, known as the "Farmer Protection Act," would shift liability from the farmer to the seed manufacturer for any "genetic pollution" damage caused by seeds or pollen spreading from one field to another. That bill, S-164, passed the Senate 29-0, but has since stalled in the House Natural Resources Committee. It could still hitch a ride out of the House on another related bill. A third piece of anti-GMO legislation would impose a statewide moratorium on all GMO crops until long-term safety tests can prove they're safe. Thus far, 79 Vermont towns have passed resolutions asking lawmakers to call a "time out" on GMOs.

All three bills are being watched closely not only in Vermont but around the world, where politicians hope to use them as models for their own GMO regulations. It's part of a global movement to rein in a largely unregulated biotech industry, whose genetic tinkering raises serious public concerns, from its impact on genetic diversity and the environment to possible health consequences for humans and animals.

On April 17, Vermont's anti-GMO activists will take their message to the U.S.-Canada border for a rally in Derby Line to mark the International Day of Farmers' Struggle. Expect the requisite fiery speeches, rocking music, street puppets, GMO-free munchies and other hoopla warning about the many dangers of growing and eating Frankenfoods.

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Urban Outfitters' latest marketing gimmick was a line of shirts proclaiming that "Voting is for old people." Tell that to the folks at Generation Vote, a new Burlington-based nonprofit group that was formed by high school and college students from around the state who want to boost voter registration among 18- to 34-year-olds. Generation Vote was modeled largely after Rock the Vote, the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization formed in 1990 in response to growing attacks on free speech and artistic expression.

Generation Vote's first-ever event will be a fundraising concert at the University of Vermont on Friday, April 23. The show, which will feature a diverse lineup of local and regional acts who are donating their time, will also include a speech by Rock the Vote President Jehmu Greene. Greene is a Washington, D.C., native who grew up in Austin, Texas and has appeared on such news shows as CNN's "Inside Politics," "360 with Anderson Cooper," and Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor."

As the daughter of Liberian political exiles, Greene has a pretty serious rap on the realities of war, social disorder and the importance of getting young folks dialed into the democratic process. Greene will be introduced by Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, who will likely take the opportunity to remind the crowd there's a gubernatorial election coming up in November. For more info on the concert, or to join Generation Vote, contact Jill Krowinski at 802-363-3907.

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Speaking of rocking the house, the birthplace of Vermont's most prominent Civil War hero goes on the auction block in a few weeks. William Wells, who was born and raised in Waterbury, enlisted as a private in the First Vermont Cavalry and eventually rose to the rank of general. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage at Gettysburg, where a statue of him still stands. A similar statue in Burlington's Battery Park commemorates his military career, as does a plaque in the Statehouse.

Well's house in downtown Waterbury Village was built in 1831 and served as his home before and after the war. It was later sold to another prominent Vermont family, the Randalls, whose daughter, Pearl Randall Wasson, went on to become UVM's first dean of women.

In recent years, the house has lost some of its luster -- as the Gateway Motel, a seedy and decrepit inn for transients and low-income residents. Its owners, a Long Island couple, still owe the town thousands in back taxes. Local police say that over the years they've received numerous complaints about the place, and state fire inspectors cited it for repeated safety-code violations. So it came as no surprise when the motel was gutted by a fire in December 2002.

But some Waterbury residents and low-income housing advocates are trying to save the Wells House from demolition or commercial developers who might turn it into a gas station or a fast-food restaurant. On Town Meeting Day last month, voters gave village trustees the okay to spend up to $300,000 to purchase the property. But anything can happen at auction, and the place needs a serious overhaul, including a new roof. "It doesn't have to be restored to its pristine pre-Civil War condition," says Tom Stevens, vice-president of a local historic preservation society called Revitalizing Waterbury. "It's more about preserving the aesthetics of the streetscape and the potential for tourist value."

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