Is Vermont's Governor Surrendering to Monsanto?
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Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin has less than two weeks to either stand with the 90 percent of his constituents who support a mandatory labeling bill for genetically engineered foods -- or cave in to Monsanto's threat to sue the state if legislators pass H.722.
If the Governor's words this past week are any indication, he's already surrendered to Monsanto. But Vermonters, not known for backing down from a fight, are challenging legislators to take on the biotech industry. They're even offering to raise money for the state's defense.
Last week thousands of Vermonters flooded the Governor's office with petitions, phone calls and emails, to make the case for GMO labeling of all food sold in Vermont and to demand a vote on the bill. Under Vermont's constitution, the Governor can extend the state's legislative session indefinitely, ultimately forcing a vote on the bill. If he doesn't extend the session, or urge legislators to vote on the bill, it will die in committee.
But while supporters were emailing and phoning and signing, Governor Shumlin was sending out a canned response to the thousands of supporters who emailed his office. In the Governor's own words:
Thank you for contacting me about labeling genetically modified foods. I agree with those who advocate for clear labeling of genetically modified foods. GMO labeling makes sense and would give Vermonters key information about their food choices. However, we know from attempts to pass similar legislation in the past that such a requirement would not stand up to federal legal scrutiny. I don't think it is fair to ask Vermonters to bear the burden of the cost of those legal challenges...
On April 12, in the hope once again of forcing a vote, more than 300 people packed the Vermont statehouse for public testimony on H.722, with more than one hundred of them testifying -- every single one in favor -- of passing the bill. When legislators brought up the burden of a potential legal battle, supporters of the bill called for a legal defense fund -- not a retreat.
However, a bill that once appeared destined to pass on the merits of scientific evidence, overwhelming public support, and support of the majority of Vermont's progressive legislators, now appears doomed -- unless Vermont voters succeed in changing the Governor's mind.
A brief history of Vermont H.722
In mid-December, a coalition of farmers and Vermont NGOs asked the state to revive a GMO labeling bill that in 2011 had stalled in the house agricultural committee. Supporters proposed revising the bill's language to conform to language in a similar bill currently being proposed in California, through a citizens' ballot initiative process. Both Carolyn Partridge, chairman of the House agricultural committee, and Will Stevens, a member of the agriculture committee, responded favorably. Several legislators stepped forward to sponsor and co-sponsor the bill.
Despite the support of Partridge, Stevens and the majority of Vermont voters, the committee didn't even begin hearings on the bill until March. Finally, during the first round of testimony the legislature heard from pro-labeling witnesses including organic farmers concerned about seed contamination, consumers worried about food safety, and scientists who refuted Monsanto's claims that genetically engineered food is perfectly safe. Still, no vote. Instead, the committee called for more hearings.
Although Partridge publicly voiced support, privately she told Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, that H.722 was a "hot potato" that she got "stuck" with because no other committee wanted to host it, according to Stander.
How does a bill backed by strong scientific evidence and 90 percent of the voters become a "hot potato"? When Monsanto threatens to sue the state if it passes. It's now common knowledge that Vermont officials are worried about the cost of a legal battle with Monsanto. Last week, the online newspaper VTdigger.org reported: "Rachel Lattimore, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who has represented the Biotechnology Industry Association, Monsanto, and other biotechnology companies, told the committee and one of its attorneys that Vermont would face a lawsuit from the industry if it passed this bill."