"We're working on a 'conspiracy of goodwill.'" That's how Vermont Agriculture Commissioner Steve Kerr described his recent meeting-of-the-minds with CropLife America, a trade and lobbying group that represents 83 manufacturers of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Kerr is urging state lawmakers to accept a deal with the biotech firms whereby they would voluntarily reveal the quantity of genetically-engineered seed sold in Vermont each year.
Kerr's comments came during an April 18 meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee. The committee was discussing Senate bill 182, which proposes those companies be required to provide that sales information and label all "genetically-engineered" seeds sold in the Green Mountain State.
If enacted, the law would be the first of its kind in the nation. On April 9, the Senate passed the bill by a wide margin - only three senators voted against it. Such overwhelming support for the bill, which surprised even its backers, reflects growing public support in Vermont for more information about the spread of transgenic crops. In the last three years, 70 Vermont towns have passed resolutions calling for government oversight of GMOs.
"There's a fair interest in knowing what genetically-modified seeds are sold in Vermont and in what volumes," Kerr acknowledged. But right now, the commissioner says, voluntary reporting is the way to go, without labeling standards. "Ob-viously, the companies are going to argue that they disclose what needs to be disclosed," Kerr told committee members. "I don't mean to be flippant, but I get the sense sometimes that the folks on the other side would like to see a skull and crossbones on the label. Somewhere in between is the truth."
Committee members who oppose S.182 argue that the bill is "the camel's nose under the tent" leading to more restrictions on Vermont farmers, who are already struggling to remain competitive. "I would be suspicious that if we pass this one, next year we'll have two or three more bills waiting in the wings," said Rep. Phil Bartlett (R-Dover). "This bill might be reasonable. The next one might not be." Others warned that mandatory GE seed labeling would make Vermont farmers and seed distributors vulnerable to "genetic blacklisting" or worse, GMO-friendly growers the targets of vandalism by eco-terrorists.
But proponents argued that such fears are unfounded, since the annual reporting process wouldn't disclose which farmers buy the GE seeds - only how much of it is being planted here. Last week, the ag commissioner revealed that about 44 percent of all crops grown in Vermont are genetically modified, a figure higher than was previously estimated.
As for genetic blacklisting, GE crops are already taboo in many of the world's agricultural markets. The European Union has already put the kibosh on GMOs, as have many Asian countries. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration must approve all GE crops before they're sold for human consumption - at least 40 transgenic crops are grown in the United States already - neither the states nor the federal government track their sale or distribution. But it's estimated that 60 to 70 percent of all processed foods on American supermarket shelves contain at least one genetically altered ingredient.
If anyone is concerned over lost revenue, it's Vermont's certified organic farmers, who represent the fastest-growing sector of the farm economy. In fact, S.182 is a scaled-down version of a more comprehensive bill that would have also made GE seed manufacturers liable for damages caused by the migration of their seed. This "genetic drift" cost Saskatchewan canola farmer Percy Schmeiser his livelihood in a major lawsuit with Monsanto and made him the international poster child of the anti-GMO movement. The Legislature is expected to study the liability issue this summer.
GMO opponents also aren't buying Commissioner Kerr's spin on the manufacturers' motives. "I think there is a pretty strong track record of dragging of feet and a desire not to have this information out there," said Rep. David Zuckerman (P-Burlington), an organic vegetable farmer who sits on the Natural Resources Committee. "If there's nothing to hide, what's the harm of having this as a statute?" Zuckerman wonders why the biotech industry would comply with a voluntary agreement when it's been fighting it tooth and nail as a legislative mandate.
Kerr suggested that this voluntary measure would head off the inevitable assault on Montpelier by agribusiness lawyers and lobbyists. "The companies have made it very clear they will spend untold dollars to defeat legislation," Kerr said. "I'd rather pursue it this way than get into a knock-down, drag-out battle and have Monsanto et al. bringing in the big guns because they've decided they've got to stop this in Vermont before it spreads."
That argument doesn't hold water with Amy Shollenberger, policy director for Rural Vermont, a statewide advocacy group that supports tougher regulations of GMOs. "I find it really appalling that the commissioner of agriculture is giving as a reason not to pass a bill that the industry doesn't want it," Shollenberger said. "I would question whether his priorities are in the right place."
Conspiracy theorists might also be speculating about why a bill that deals with farmers and seeds was referred to the Natural Resources Committee, rather than the Agriculture Committee. As one lobbyist suggested privately, perhaps it's because seven of the 11 Ag Committee members are Democrats, while six reps on the 11-member Natural Resources Committee are Republicans, and Gov. Jim Douglas says the bill isn't a priority this session. House Speaker Walter Freed didn't return repeated phone calls from Seven Days. But Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bill Johnson offered one theory: "Well, this bill is about natural resources."
Natural? Not really. That's the whole point.