by Paris Reidhead

Ethan Allen statue, Montpelier, VT
Source: Mark Goebel

In the News Notes section of the Winter 2015-16 issue of The Natural Farmer, I read the headline: “U.S. Court of Appeals Tough on GMO Labeling Challengers”. The Natural Farmer, edited by Jack Kittredge, is the quarterly newspaper of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Kittredge wrote that the labels that Vermont, as of July 2016, will be requiring on food products that contain genetically engineered ingredients, do not appear that scary to Judge Gerard Lynch. Lynch is judge at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, presiding over Vermont’s district, and he wrote that the state’s proposed labeling language is as benign as the wording noting that a food coloring was used. Quoting Lynch: “It seems to me that there is nothing controversial if a product contains red dye #2, and that it is disclosed on the ingredient label. And he lumped in GMO-labeling in the same category.

The hearing relating to this matter took place in a packed Manhattan courtroom on October 8. It lasted about an hour… much more time than was originally docketed for it. At that hearing, lawyers for the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) argued that the GMO (genetically modified organism) labels, which will be required nine months in the future, “imply a safety risk and constitute compelled speak, a violation of the First Amendment”.

At the October 8 session, GMA was appealing an earlier April decision by another Federal judge in Vermont to reject its effort to block the law from going into effect. What Lynch and the other Federal judges on the panel finally decide could weigh on other states as they consider passing their own labeling rules. By agreeing that an injunction should be allowed, the Appeals Court would keep the Vermont law from going into effect until the First Amendment lawsuit is resolved… a process that could take several years. It would also buy time for GMA and its industry colleagues to convince Congress to pass a law pre-empting state GMO-labeling efforts.

One of the judges, the Honorable Susan Carney, backed the state’s argument, noting that concerns over the environmental effects of GMO crop production is “an interest that has been expressed by many people… why isn’t concern about risk enough to justify action by lawmakers?” However, even if Vermont’s environmental concerns merit action, the judges raised questions as to whether labeling was the best way to address them. While a warning on cigarette packages can directly improve public health… by encouraging people not to smoke… there’s less of a connection between consumers avoiding products with GMO ingredients and a reduction in the amount of pesticides applied to farmland.

According to Lynch, the law seems to address secondary risks. In her opinion, the use of glyphosate (the world’s most prevalent herbicide, and thus the one most responsible for the tidal wave of GMO crop varieties)… is not going to stop just because consumers in one small state can more easily make the switch to conventional (non-GMO) foods. She insisted, “That’s not going to change the agri-business model”.

With the U.S. House of Representatives handily passing HR-1599 (the so-called “Safe and Affordable Food Act”) this past July, sadly [in the minds of many sustainable farming advocates (and consumers)], the likelihood of the Senate voting otherwise is quite slim. Vermont’s GMO labeling law is slated to be activated next year. The GMA has already sued the state for passing its own mandatory GMO-labeling law, slated to take effect in July 2016.

How will the state react if their law ends up being invalidated by the Feds? Having done extensive research on this subject myself, I feel that a little Vermont history may help answer that question. For starters, Vermont was never a separately identified colony like its neighbors New York and New Hampshire. Residents of this roughly 9,000 square mile chunk of mountainous real estate called their home the Vermont Republic from 1777 to 1791. The Green Mountain Boys immediately joined the Revolution, and on May 10, 1775, fewer than a hundred of them, under the joint command of Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, captured Fort Ticonderoga. This took place a mere three weeks after the battles of Lexington and Concord. Eventually they became part of the Continental Army and served in an unsuccessful offensive against Canada.

The “Green Mountain Boys“, led by Ethan Allen, was a Vermont militia force that supported the New Hampshire claims and fought the British during the American Revolution. (New York also claimed much of the Vermont Republic for its own.) During its Republic existence Vermont elected governors, not presidents. Vermont Republic freed its slaves before the 13 colonies. Vermont tried unsuccessfully to join the British Province of Quebec, rather than the other 13 colonies in becoming part of the bigger Union. There’s a good chance that the Quebecois may have considered the Green Mountaineers a little too feisty to become team-playing Canadians.

Finally, Vermont did become our 14th state in 1791. The last two lines of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem The Song of the Vermonters, 1779, read: “Our vow is recorded—our banner unfurled. In the name of Vermont we defy all the world!”

If this ancient couplet… once the mindset of Ethan Allen… remains undiminished in the attitude of modern Vermonters, then GMA and their legal lackeys, attempting to fight the Green Mountain State’s GMO-labelling law, will have their work cut out for them.

This article first appeared in the December 21, 2015 issue of the agricultural paper Country Folks

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