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% 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% of all feed corn grown in Vermont is genetically modified, 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 GMOcentered 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 sociallyjust 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 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 sixty-year period from the 1950s to today.
This huge loss – over 700 farms per county – also meant a precipitous decline in a rural economy and culture that revolved around the small, family farmer. The once thriving towns mirrored the agricultural decline, most reduced to near-ghost towns, mere pass-throughs, with buildings boarded up and general stores either gone or teetering on the economic brink.
Aristotle wrote that the nature of anything can be discerned only after it has reached or passed its maturation. Industrial – or degenerative – agriculture has certainly matured, showing its nature clearly after decades of domination of Vermont’s farm economy. And it’s not only a story of decline, but also toxicity, as our watersheds, soils, farm animals and food products are awash in the chemicals and synthetic fertilizers used on Vermont’s industrialized farmland. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in the last several decades alone just trying to remedy the pollution of Lake Champlain and its watershed as a result of the techniques of industrial dairy farming.
Despite its record, industrial agriculture keeps marching along, still coddled by government regulators and politicians alike, and still making promises it can’t deliver. GMO techniques are its latest – and, we hope, last – degenerative gimmick, one that, like all of them before, Vermont agriculture has wholeheartedly embraced.