Board of Directors report
by Vicky Senni
Upon passing Act 120 in May 2014, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association, and National Association of Manufacturers filed suit against Vermont. The complaint filed by these industry groups alleged that VT's new law was in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The judge in this case has allowed the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) and the Center for Food Safety to participate in filing papers and legal arguments during the case. This is good news, given that VPIRG is one of the coalition partners who spearheaded this grassroots movement turned into law. The other collaborators include Rural Vermont, NOFA-VT, and Cedar Circle Farm, along with many associated partners and supporting businesses.
I spoke with Cat Buxton, an active participant in the coalition who has worked tirelessly to get the word out. “We're clearly on opposite sides,” Cat said, “and it's not unlikely that this could go all the way to the Supreme Court.”
On August 8, 2014, the state filed a motion to dismiss the case. In September, the plaintiffs (the aforementioned industry groups) filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, requesting the implementation of the law to be halted until there is a court decision. The two motions went before Chief Judge Cristina Reiss on January 7, 2015, who is due to present her decision some time before June this year.
The January hearing was incredibly helpful, according to Buxton. “The Attorney General's office has done a great job gathering input from consumers, producers, and organizations that would be affected.” The rules associated with the law are expected to be in place by July 1, 2015, giving organizations a full year to change their labels and adapt to the new law.
The Food Fight Fund has been established by the attorney general and the governor to help pay for the rule-making process and litigation. To learn more, visit www.foodfightfundvt.org. Aside from promoting this fund, Buxton says we can put pressure on food companies to either withdraw from the food conglomerates, or to pressure the industry groups to stop suing Vermont. In December, after stating they were “under fire” from consumers, Stonyfield Farm decided to withdraw from the International Dairy Foods Association.
Nationally, we can we can work to stop H.R. 4432, a bill sponsored by Representative Mike Pompeo (R- KS) called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. This misnomer was renamed the DARK Act (Deny Americans the Right to Know) by opponents because it would preempt states from passing a labeling law, and continue allowing GMO foods to be called “natural.” On the other hand, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced a bill that would require labeling on a national level. “This legislation,” says Boxer, “is supported by a broad coalition of consumer groups, businesses, farmers, fishermen, and parents who all agree that consumers deserve more—not less—information about the food they buy.”
Cat Buxton sees a lot of movement in other states, many of which are modeling new pieces of legislation on Vermont's bill. “Massachusetts is working on a bill, Connecticut is working to remove their trigger, and Minnesota is doing well,” says Buxton. It gets complicated because each state has particular laws present that they can't violate, some having to do with dairy or meat, for instance. “That's why we have written into our rule that dairy will not be labeled,” says Buxton, “unless the milk comes from a genetically engineered cow.” Meat is also exempt in our new law, unless it's been genetically engineered (a common practice now with salmon, which would indeed require labeling).
Shifting the World and Leading the Way
“There are advantages of being small,” Vandana Shiva told Vermonters during her November 2014 talk in Burlington. “The biggest is that you get forgotten, and out of that you can spread the wings of freedom.”
Dr. Shiva is an author, activist, and globally recognized scientist from India who has contributed significantly to the fields of intellectual property rights, biodiversity, and genetic engineering. Her talk, entitled “Food System Transformation and Reversing the Climate Crisis: How Vermont's GMO Labeling Law is Part of the Solution,” was co-sponsored by the Vermont Right to Know GMOs Coalition and can be viewed online in case you missed her tribute to our little New England State.
There is a continuum that we can't separate, according to Dr. Shiva, between the health of soil, the health of the planet, and our human health. She points to “substantial equivalence” as the foundation of the challenges brought on by industry bodies. Substantial equivalence assumes that a naturally occurring organism is like a genetically modified organism. This translates into “don't look, don't see, don't find, and be ignorant about issues of safety.” Not having looked, the declaration is being made that there is no proof of hazards. Without a doubt, the safety of GMO products needs to be established, and the burden of proof should not be on the consumer.
The freedom of speech argument brought on by the industry “sounds insane” according to Dr. Shiva, because a corporation is basically a legal construction given permission by society. “What you're doing here in Vermont by saying that you have the right,” she continued, “is to slightly help the world realize that a corporation is a fiction and their free speech is a construct and we can't afford to be governed by fictions and abstractions and constructions when there's a real world in which people live and die.”
Vermont has a history marked with significant decisions based on freedom and democracy. In 1977, Vermont was the first colony to ban slavery and extend voting rights to African-Americans, which became part of the state constitution beginning in 1791. In 2000, Vermont was the first state to legally recognize civil unions for same-sex partners (granting full marriage rights nine years later). In May of 2012, Vermont banned fracking to ensure, as Governor Shumlin said, “that we do not inject chemicals into groundwater in a desperate pursuit for energy.” And finally, in 2014, we made an unprecedented move to create Act 120, the first law of its kind in the country.
“We couldn't have passed this law without help from the food co-ops,” says Cat Buxton. She emphasizes the importance of cooperatives and of cooperation in the coalition's work. “We took four major groups in Vermont and cooperated to work with the grassroots, the co-ops, and our legislators. It's been an amazing three-year fight and it's not over yet... in some ways, it's just begun and cooperation is the key.”
Vandana Shiva might agree that we all have a stake in this for the sake of, what she describes as, “one democracy of the earth.” She ended her November talk with a thought from Archimedes, who once said, “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” Dr. Shiva, standing in City Hall's Contois Auditorium in Burlington, said “This is the place to shift the world.”
For more information on the status of Act 120, stop by our Shareholder Services desk or visit www.vtrighttoknowgmos.org.