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GM food opponents organize in Vermont townships

By Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Feb. 28, 2002 – CropChoice news) – Dexter Randall wants to banish genetically engineered crops in Vermont.

"The minute GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are released into the environment, they cannot co-exist with conventional and organic varieties because of cross-pollination," says Randall, who runs a dairy farm in Troy, near the Canadian border. Thirty acres of conventional corn helps to feed his 110 Holstein cows. "The word ‘containment’ is important, but impossible to achieve because we don’t live in greenhouse farms." The wind, birds, bees, people and other transportation means can spread pollen from corn engineered with the insecticidal bacterium bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

Randall’s not the only local farmer working on the issue, however.

For the past 25 years, Jack Lazor has been farming organically and profitably nearby in Westfield. He grows corn, soybeans, dry beans and cereal grains, much of which go to feed the dairy cows on his ButterWorks Farm.

Like Randall, his fellow anti-transgenic crop crusader, Lazor is concerned about cross-pollination from Bt varieties and wants to educate farmers about alternatives to biotechnology.

Crop rotation, which he considers to be a dying part of conventional farming, is key to avoiding problems. In other words, don’t grow corn in the same place every year. Lazor plants open-pollinated and hybrid corn seed before his neighbors do so that it pollinates earlier. The open-pollinated corn – unlike hybrids in that farmers can save and re-plant the seed without experiencing agronomic problems such as mutants -- has worked well, achieving 12 percent protein, good standability and a yield of 100 bushels per acre. That’s not far behind the 120 bushels he achieves with his conventional varieties; the northern climate reduces yields compared to the Corn Belt. But quality is more important to Lazor than quantity: "I’m not sure that people understand quality anymore."

Back in Troy, Randall thinks the corn is free of the unwanted Bt transgenes, but "how am I to know that for sure? If Monsanto took a sample and found the Bt gene in my crop, I could be liable. That makes me feel pretty upset. Monsanto should be directly liable. Put the blame where the finger is pointed. The farmer has got to wake up to the fact that consumers don’t want GMOs instead of listening as Monsanto tells them to shove (such food) down their throats."

With indignation running high, Randall and Lazor have jumped into the Town to Town Campaign on Genetically Engineered Food and Crops.

The resolution that campaign organizers hope voters will approve at annual town meetings across the state on March 5 calls for "mandatory labeling of all genetically engineered food and seeds" and a "moratorium on the further growing of GE crops…" It also urges each town Selectboard to make "Vermont a GE-free planting zone by the 2003 growing season."

Organizers with Rural Vermont, the Institute for Social Ecology’s Biotechnology Project and the Vermont Genetic Engineering Action Network, all non-profit farm and environment organizations, are leading volunteers from all 32 towns in the effort.

"Bringing this resolution on a town to town basis is a way to raise the profile of public conversation," says Susan Davidson, coordinator of the Vermont Genetic Engineering Action Network.

A victory next week wouldn’t carry the force of law. But that’s fine. The hope, Davidson says, is that state legislators will sense the resonance of the issue and begin to question where Vermont is headed on food and agriculture policy. And that they’ll take action.

Though legislative efforts to deal with transgenic food, seeds and crops have started with a bang in recent years, they ultimately have stalled, partly because of the influence of money.

CropChoice reported last February that State Rep. David Zuckerman, an organic farmer, first introduced biotech legislation two years ago. It called for studying the economic, health and environmental impacts of biotech in Vermont. Although his bill passed in the House of Representatives, it failed in the Senate.

During that same 2000 legislative session, a measure mandating labels on genetically modified seeds and food, liability for the purveyors of the technology and registration of the location of transgenic crops with town clerks flew through the Senate Agriculture Committee. But its good fortunes ended in the Finance Committee. Democratic Sen. Peter Shumlin voted with Republicans to table the bill.

Shumlin told Sen. Cheryl Rivers (D), then chair of the Agriculture Committee, that he was "unwilling to support a bill requiring labeling of genetically modified foods because the Democrats had already lost the contributions of pharmaceutical companies, and he was not willing to sacrifice contributions from the food industry," according to the May 19, 2000 edition of the Rutland Herald. ( http://rutlandherald.nybor.com/Archive/Articles/Article/7547. Shumlin is now running for lieutenant governor.