For Immediate Release:
Six Massachusetts Towns Vote Against Genetic Engineering
This town meeting season, nine towns in Massachusetts have put various measures on their town meeting warrants calling for changes in policy on genetic engineering. As of May 8, 6 of those 9 towns have debated the measures. Each town put slightly different wording on its warrant, but they all concentrated on 3 key demands: 1) mandatory labeling on all genetically engineered foods 2) farmer liability protection to give farmers legal protections when dealing with biotechnology giants and 3) a moratorium on further growing of GE crops until independent scientific evidence proves them to be safe and they can be show to not harmfully effect family farms.
Of the 6 towns that debated the issues, all of them approved at least some of the resolutions before them, and four approved all of the measures. "The success of these resolutions at town meetings this year reflects an underlying opposition to genetic engineering in the public today," said Ben Grosscup who was a leader in petitioning for the resolution in Amherst.
On Monday May 8, Amherst Town meeting debated the 3 articles on its warrant for over 1 hour and 15 minutes. The labeling resolution passed by voice vote. The liability legislation resolution passed by 115-60. The moratorium resolution passed by 82-77. The Amherst Town Meeting has many scientists, some of whom spoke against the resolutions, but others of whom spoke in favor. Members pointed out that genetic engineering is dramatically different than various from of plant breeding and hybridization that have gone on for thousands of years, because never before have genes been so separated from their own evolutionary contexts, implanted into crops from entirely different kingdoms, and patented for commercial profit. Many town meeting members were pleased to have the chance to voice their opinions in the intelligent debate that took place.
In Ware, over 100 people attended the Town meeting. The farmer liability resolution, passed quickly by 55-44. Then, the petition sponsor, Heidi Bara, spoke in favor of the call for a moratorium on genetic engineering. An organic farmer in Ware, Matthew Biskup, also spoke in favor of the moratorium, citing concerns that his corn crop is in danger of contamination. That measure, however, was defeated by voice vote. When the labeling resolution came up, one woman said "I want to know what I'm eating," and it passed by a voice vote.
Starting at the very beginning of their town meeting, citizens of Granby debated the 3 articles on genetic engineering. With nearly 200 in attendance, each resolution passed without tallying. Organic Farmer, Ryan Voiland, who sponsored the articles said, "I'm glad that Granby is supportive of a more responsible approach to agriculture and that they have showed their support for a moratorium on genetic engineering until further study is done. I wasn't sure how people would feel, and I was pleasantly surprised that people were so in favor of them." At the same meeting, Voiland brought forth a measure to form an agricultural commission in Granby, which also passed.
On May 1, the Charlemont Town Meeting, which went until 11:30pm, passed a resolution to "encourage a local moratorium on the growing of Genetically Engineered crops until there is adequate scientific evidence that these products are not harmful to us or our environment," and calling on legislators to enact mandatory labeling and farmer liability protection. Organic Farmer, John Hoffman, who sponsored the article said "neither I nor many others at town meeting are late night people." Nonetheless, more than half of the 80 or so who attended stayed until the very end when the article came up. Although the vote was not unanimous, a vast majority voted in favor. "Many told me after the meeting that they appreciated having the opportunity to vote on the resolution and to support it," Hoffman said. Hoffman, intends to continue discussion on this issue in the agricultural commission that has just formed in Charlemont. Charlemont's choice to "encourage a local moratorium," although it lacks binding legal authority, is a statement of moral authority by the town.
On May 6, Organic gardener, Linda Avis Scott and her husband, Michael Baines, presented an anti-GE resolution to the Shutesbury town meeting, which voted unanimously to support. Along with other local activists, Scott had been educating the community about the threat of genetic engineering. "The resolution we put on the warrant in Shutesbury really taps into my fundamental belief of what town meeting is about -- the true democracy that allows us to express ourselves freely and to be heard," Scott said. The same day Bernardston passed a measure for mandatory labeling of GE foods and seeds and it referred two other measures on farmer liability and a moratorium to the newly founded agricultural commission.
Since 2002, over one hundred towns in New England have passed resolutions calling for major regulatory changes for the biotechnology industry. As of May 8, 2006, eighteen of those towns are in Massachusetts.
The Vermont House and Senate have just passed unprecedented legislation that would provide Vermont farmers with liability protection and greater legal parity with biotech giants. The bill passed the House on April 25, 2006 by 77-63 and days later it passed the Senate by 19-8. Vermont's success was only possible because of the 85 towns that passed resolutions calling for a change in policy on GE technology.
Addendum Background on GE Liability issues:
Monsanto, which is the largest biotechnology company, patents novel gene sequences in their GE crops, which routinely contaminate non-GE crops through wind pollination and seed spillage from trucks. John Hoffman, who runs an organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and filed similar articles in Charlemont said, "This issue affects me directly because of the possible contamination of my corn crop. We know that with wind pollinated crops like corn, GE pollen will cross with non-GE varieties. For me, that means that my organically grown crop is no longer organic."
The corporate patent rights that come with these novel gene sequences pose liability threats that leave many farmers concerned. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that, Monsanto has an an annual budget of $10 million, with which it employs a staff of 75 lawyers devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers for patent infringement.
So far, Monsanto has filed 90 lawsuits against U.S. farmers, according to the Center for Food Safety, and the recorded judgments it has been awarded have totaled over $15 million. But many farmers settle with the company out-of-court, accepting court gag orders and leaving scant information about their cases. Gloria Meluleni, an organic farmer who runs Coyote Hill Farm and brought forth resolutions on GE to the Bernardston Town Meeting said, "It is so unjust and ridiculous that Monsanto can sue people when its GE pollen crosses over to someone else's crop."