Editor’s note: This commentary is by Will Allen and Michael Colby, who are co-founders, along with Kate Duesterberg, of Regeneration Vermont, a new nonprofit educational and advocacy organization that is working to halt the catastrophic consequences of Vermont’s adoption of degenerative, toxic and climate-threatening agricultural techniques.
Vermont has proven itself to be a leader when it comes to showing its concern over the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture and food production. It was the first state in the nation to pass GMO-labeling legislation, forcing food corporations nationwide to scramble and prepare to meet the law’s requirements when it takes effect in July 2016. But, in many ways, the passage of this historic law has left a false impression that it “solved” the GMO problem in the state. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Vermont agriculture is dominated by GMOs, especially within the commodity dairy sector, which represents more than 70 percent of the state agricultural economy. Currently, there are more than 92,000 acres of GMO feed corn that are grown in Vermont, making it – by far – the state’s number one crop. More than 96 percent of all feed corn grown in Vermont is a GMO variety, and almost all of this GMO corn is used to feed dairy cows.
Ironically, Vermont’s GMO addiction is exempt from its own GMO labeling law, as the law specifically exempts dairy and meat products. So while the law will force mainstream food corporations to label GMOs in products like Cheetos and SpaghettiOs before coming into the state, it turns a blind eye to the GMO-derived dairy that is the primary ingredient in, for example, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Cabot’s cheddar cheese.
This is about more than the consumer’s right to know. It’s also about the impact GMO-centered agriculture is having on Vermont’s environment and wildlife, its role in the continued monopolization of the food supply, and the roadblocks it creates in the path toward a truly regenerative, eco-sensitive, and socially just form of agriculture in the state. The current domination of GMOs and industrial agriculture in Vermont dairy is, quite frankly, the elephant on the farm that few want to acknowledge.
The history of Vermont’s heavy adoption of industrial – or degenerative – forms of agriculture is also the history of its failure and decline. At every stage, beginning with chemical agriculture in the post-WWII era, the new techniques being promoted by the increasingly corporate and industrial agriculture came with mighty promises: Labor would be saved, yields would be increase, bugs and insects would be eliminated, and profits would soar. Just get in line, and follow the edicts coming out of the USDA and the agricultural extension centers.
But, more often than not, the promises were false – or short lived – while the damage was deep, most notably in the way further industrialization all but mandated the consolidation of Vermont’s farms. “Get big or get out” has been the dominant mantra in agriculture since the late 1950s. And it worked. Many did get big, but most got out. Vermont lost a staggering number of farmers as commodity dairy took over. More than 10,000 dairy farms were gone within a 60-year period from the 1950s to today.