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Vermont Voting on GE Bans & Labeling Across the State

Vermont Voting on GE Bans
& Labeling Across the State

Times Argus, Barre-Montpelier, Vermont
January 20, 2002

Seeds of discontent: Petition drive aims to make gene-altered crops
statewide issue

By ROBIN PALMER

Staff Writer

Three Vermont grassroots organizations are helping citizens around the state
put resolutions before Town Meeting Day voters that request the labeling of,
or moratoriums on, genetically engineered foods.

People in more than 30 towns are gathering signatures on petitions to put
the questions to voters, said Heather Albert-Knopp, grassroots organizer and
program director for the Institute for Social Ecology's Biotechnology
Project.

The petitions contain different language. Some are simply urging state and
federal officials to support mandatory labeling of all genetically
engineered foods and seeds, as well as a moratorium on the growing of
genetically modified crops. Others go beyond that, also calling for select
boards to declare local moratoriums on the use of genetically engineered
seeds within the town, "as a step toward making Vermont a GE-free planting
zone by the 2003 growing season."

The town-by-town petition drives would need signatures from 5 percent of the
voters to go on that town's ballot.

The Institute for Social Ecology, the Vermont Genetic Engineering Action
Network and Rural Vermont are leading the effort, which Albert-Knopp called
the first of its kind in the nation.

While communities elsewhere have passed resolutions on labeling, the Vermont
effort for a moratorium on the growing of genetically engineered crops at a
local level is a first, Albert-Knopp said.

"What's different is we're declaring a moratorium right here and now,"
Albert-Knopp said. "We think that this is important because it's really
mpowering people within their community to create a fundamental change
on a grassroots level.

"It's trying to get the issue more publicity and also bring the issue to the
state and federal government," she said.

In Vermont, genetically engineered foods are found primarily on grocery
store shelves.

Currently between 70 percent and 75 percent of processed foods contain
genetically modified ingredients, according to Jane Kolodinsky, a professor
and interim chairwoman of the University of Vermont's Community Development
and Applied Economics Department and co-director of the school's Center for
Rural Studies.

Others estimate the number to be closer to two-thirds. No one knows for sure
because the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate or require the
labeling of genetically engineered foods, said Kolodinsky.

The FDA, rather, has determined these foods to be "substantially equivalent"
to non-modified foods, she said.

Debate is raging at the national level over whether labeling foods as
genetically engineered would give consumers a negative connotation of the
product. A second question is whether voluntary labeling of foods as "GMO
Free" or "Not Genetically Modified" is having the opposite effect and
causing consumers to choose those products, Kolodinsky said.

She listed Rumford Baking Powder, Balance bars and tofu products as three
that are labeled "Not Genetically Modified."

"I believe people deserve to be informed about the items they eat," said
Kolodinsky, who has been studying genetic engineering for 10 years.

The first genetically engineered food was the Flavr Savr tomato, whose
genetics were modified by scientists in a lab to give it a longer shelf
life, said Albert-Knopp. While longer lasting, the problem was that it
didn't taste as good and consumers didn't buy it.

The Flavr Savr has since been discontinued.

Other products that have had their DNA modified to change their traits
include soybeans, cotton, corn, potatoes, sugar beets, rice and wheat,
Albert-Knopp said.

Of those crops, only genetically modified corn is known to be grown in
Vermont.

It was estimated two years ago that approximately 5 percent of feed corn
grown in the state was from genetically engineered seed, said Scott Pfister,
a plant pathologist with the Vermont Department of Agriculture.

The figures are estimates because growers of genetically engineered foods
are not required to register their product with the state. The Vermont
Department of Agriculture in fact does little to study genetically
engineered foods, Pfister said.

Elsewhere the use of modified seed is higher. June 2000 figures from the
National Agricultural Statistical Service of the U.S. Department of
Agriculture estimated that 61 percent of all cotton crops, 54 percent of
soybeans and 25 percent of corn grown in the United States was genetically
modified, said Thomas DeSisto, a data research specialist with UVM's Center
for Rural Studies.

Some worry about the effects of these plants on other organisms. On Nov. 28,
BBC News Online reported that DNA from genetically modified crops had been
found in wild maize growing in remote mountains in Mexico. The native wild
maize was growing 62 miles from the nearest industrially farmed crops.

In Vermont, the fear among the groups bringing forth the petitions, which
are due to town clerks this week for consideration for town meeting, is that
pollen from genetically modified corn will spread to conventional and
organic crops.

"It's quite clear what's fast coming over the horizon is GMO contamination.
S Some people in the legal field say that amounts to trespassing on farmers'
property," said Ron Morrissette of the cross-pollination concern.
Morrissette is co-chairman of Rural Vermont's board.

"It's our concern that our communities have lost the ability to know what
kind of food systems we participate in. We don't have choices about how our
food is produced. We want to have a say in that," added Arthur Foelsche, an
employee with the Institute for Social Ecology Biotechnology Project and a
Plainfield resident helping to lead a petition effort in his town.

Plainfield's petition includes a declaration for an end to genetically
engineered crops in town.

But, said Foelsche, "It's not about targeting farmers. It's about making a
decision as a community: This is something we don't want to do."

Kolodinsky said the success of the town-to-town campaign will depend on how
the information is presented.

"We find that a lot of consumers are aware of the issues but aren't
well-informed. It's going to be the group that gets its information out to
the public in the most understandable way that's going to make the
difference," she said. "I don't think the radical approach is going to
help."

Kolodinsky said she helps conduct an annual poll of Vermonters for UVM. Last
year's survey asked about genetically engineered foods.

The survey found that more than 90 percent of respondents were aware of the
issue, but that support or opposition to these foods depended on how the
questions were asked, Kolodinsky said.

If a question listed genetically engineered foods' attributes, the answers
swung toward the positive. If a question listed the downsides, the
respondents were more opposed to genetic engineering, she said.

The petition that the three advocacy groups suggested to towns begins,
"Whereas genetically engineered (GE) foods have been shown to cause
long-term damage to the environment, the integrity of rural, family farm
economies and can have serious impacts on human health S "

Dan Baker, a member of the Applied Economics Department faculty at UVM, said
it matters more that people are discussing the issue than whether specific
language on labeling and moratoriums passes at town meeting this year.

"I think the point is not necessarily to simply pass moratoriums. I think
the point is to create a more informed public. The point is to generate
discussion. I think that is the greatest success," said Baker, a Starksboro
resident.

The town of Starksboro, through petitions and floor motions, has considered
resolutions on genetically engineered foods for the last four years, Baker
said.

Last year, Baker brought forth a petition calling for "clear and informative
labeling" and asking for a state moratorium on the use of genetically
modified seed.

The resolution was modified from the floor to include a federal moratorium
as well - so as not to put Vermont farmers at a disadvantage - and passed by
a standing majority vote, Baker said.


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