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Is Vermont’s Governor Surrendering to Monsanto?

Ronnie Cummins and Will Allen
Alternet / News Analysis
Published: Saturday 21 April 2012
“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.”
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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:

Dear Friend,

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 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."

Monsanto's intimidation tactics appear to have succeeded. However, Vermont voters continue to pressure Governor Shumlin to sit down with his lawyers and the lawyers who drafted Bill H722 to determine, after a careful legal analysis, if he wants to promote the bill or obstruct it.

In support of Vermont farmers and consumers, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) has launched its own offensive, in the form of a legal defense fund for Vermont and any other state Monsanto threatens to sue over mandatory GMO labeling laws. The OCA is a nationwide organization of organic farmers and consumers that has fought for consumers' right to know about GMOs for more than a decade. According to Katherine Paul, OCA fundraising coordinator, "Over the past four days we've already received commitments of more than $50,000 to defend Vermont or any other state that passes a GMO labeling bill. The only way to back down a legal bully like Monsanto or the Biotechnology Industry Organization is with a bigger legal stick and the moral high ground. Let's make sure we have both of those."

Fifty countries have passed GMO labeling laws, in large part based upon peer-reviewed studies suggesting that GMO crops and foods are hazardous to animal and human health and the environment. Recent GMO feeding studies have found liver abnormalities in 30.8 percent of the female test animals, kidney abnormalities in 43.5 percent of the male test animals, and a thickening of the stomach lining in almost all the tests. These results and results from numerous other tests were troubling enough for all these other countries to label genetically engineered foods so that there was traceability and so that consumers could make a choice.

Currently in the U.S., consumers are not allowed to choose whether they want to be part of a vast GMO feeding experiment. If they become ill or have an allergic reaction to a food product that has been genetically engineered, they cannot trace it back to the source. Consumers have no way of knowing which foods contain genetically modified ingredients and which do not. Most have no idea that 75 percent or more of non-organic processed foods do contain GMOs. Even fewer understand that thousands of foods labeled or advertised as "natural" or "all natural" contain genetically modified ingredients.

Vermont, perhaps more than any other state, has traditionally done the right thing to protect its citizens and the environment. This time fear of Monsanto and the other gene giants has sapped the courage and commitment of the current Governor and the legislature.

Please call Governor Shumlin (802 828-3333) and tell him to stand up to Monsanto bullying. Tell him to publicly speak out and encourage the House and Senate to speed up the review process, pass the GMO labeling bill, and sign it before the legislative session ends on May 1.

And please support the OCA's "Millions against Monsanto" campaign so that Governor Shumlin and all the other states can feel secure in fighting Monsanto in court. If the Governor and legislators surrender now, they will perpetuate claims that progressive politicians are good at promising change, but lack the backbone to follow through on their rhetoric. If they show real courage and pass H.722, they will send a strong message to Monsanto and Big Biotech that the growing Millions movement will do whatever it takes -- including mounting -- to stop the corporate bullying and take back our food supply. 

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ABOUT Ronnie Cummins

Ronnie Cummins is founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association. Cummins is author of numerous articles and books, including "Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers" (Second Revised Edition Marlowe & Company 2004).

I was concerned that the

I was concerned that the Governor might be opposed to GMO labeling and phoned his office for clarification. Their stated position made sense to me:
First , they are strongly in favor of accurate food labeling, especially for GMO.
Second, they are concerned about how we as a small state can fund a legal battle with a litigious financial giant like Monsanto.
Third, they want to make sure the bill is written in a way that makes it easier and less costly to defend.
Forth, they feel that as a tiny state, it may be a disadvantage to "first" and that waiting to be more closely aligned with California and other large states may minimize us as a target, and create a better chance for a strong nationwide defense of our food supply.
Although I would like things to move faster, the Governors stance taken at face value seems at least a defensible one.
In any case, proper food labeling, and the defeat of GMO is a must. The light of day shining on Monsanto and the corrupt politicians that support them will be the force that will ultimately bring them down, as long as we (and the media) keep our focus on the bad guys.

It is sad that American

It is sad that American freedom has declined to the point of government living not in fear of being repremanded by its citizens concerned for their own well being, but instead cowering at the shadows of corporations concerned for the well being of their profits at the expense of everyone else.

This is not the democracy the founding fathers had in mind.

Given Vermont's recent

Given Vermont's recent history with rGBH, it's no wonder they are afraid of a lawsuit. Recent history shows that as long as corporations are given the same rights as people to remain silent Vermont would be in for an expensive lawsuit they would likely loose. Another reason we need an amendment that says Corporations are not People and money is not speech.

We in Vermont are not

We in Vermont are not "letting" ourselves be blackmailed by Monsanto. Nor is Governor Shumlin selling us out or letting us down. First, read the excerpt from the letter he sent out: he clearly states that he agrees with labeling GMO foods. He is no happier about the difficulty Vermont will face should the GMO labeling bill be passed than any of the others of us who are enthusiastic supporters of H. 722. But he is sworn to uphold the laws of the State and to protect it. That means he has to consider the fallout from any act the State takes on his watch. And he is absolutely correct when he shows concern that the State will be hit with a monster bill when Monsanto sues the State.

The State of Vermont, its legislature and its executive, have shown tremendous courage on numerous occasions concerning the rights, welfare, and protections of its citizens. But on many of those occasions, when the State took on large corporations, it has been sued, and it has not prevailed in those instances.

Keep in mind that Vermont is the tiniest state in the U.S., considering its resources. Monsanto's lobbying budget alone is probably bigger than Vermont's operating budget. In civil law suits, the party with the most resources usually wins - not always, but usually.

Also of note is the connections within the State that Monsanto has. It is reputedly the largest donor to the University of Vermont. And UVM is the biggest single expense for the State. So now the State has a bit of a conflict of interest if it tries to take on Monsanto. And then consider this: recombinant bovine growth hormone was tested in UVM's agricultural labs. Of course, rBGH was shown to be safe! What a surprise! So when the State attempted to require labeling for rBGH, although the law was enacted, it was shot down. No surprise there. And that was almost 20 years ago, before we had a U.S. Supreme Court that had blatant corporate partisans making up its majority.

Vermont legislature may pass the bill. If I does, I would put money on the Governor's signing it. And I would put money on Monsanto suing the State. And I would put money on the State losing all the way up and down the line. (I am not saying, the State should not enact the bill, but I am saying that we have to prepare for the onslaught.) And keep in mind the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court today - its majority of corporate sycophants would sink Vermont's efforts, and use the case to set a precedent so that they can demolish any other efforts by other states to try their hand at protecting their citizens.

The real problem here is not that H.722 should or should not be enacted (it should). It's that the government no longer has the power to protect its citizens against the predations of corporations. This goes for the federal government as well as the states. This is because the most powerful and influential persons in the country have interests that are inherently adverse to the interests of the real human citizens of the country. Until corporate personhood is abolished completely (and don't let anyone tell you that would destroy our economy, because there are other ways to protect commerce and innovation without selling ourselves out to tyrannical, monomaniacal, corporations and their sycophants) we will always and everywhere face corporations dominance over us and our lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

No, you're not letting

No, you're not letting yourself be blackmailed. There's a difference between blackmail and extortion. You are being extorted. This situation is legal extortion against Vermont, by Monsanto. It's as simple as that.

I live in Hawaii and have

I live in Hawaii and have little money but tell me where to send my $5.00

Monsanto with its deep

Monsanto with its deep pockets will bully anyone who dares to make their GREEDmongering more difficult.
Big Oil with its deeper pockets is doing the same to environmentalists opposed to drilling for oil in the pristine Artic in pre-emptive lawsuits.
These corporate trash have no concern for people or the planet -- it's all about GREED, the Profit Motive, and the Almight Dollar for them.
These psychopaths/sociopaths and their religion of GREED pose a serious threat to everyone, including themselves, and should be treated as such.

Monsanto is using the same

Monsanto is using the same playbook that the recording industry uses, to "enforce" DRM, even though the policy does NOT stand up to legal standards.

They use the fear of being big-money-sued, to make people cave in pre-emptively. In this case, Monsanto's THREAT of a suit is meant to obviate their ultimate NEED to use the courts at all.

Supposedly, Monsanto has the money power to make a living Hell for the State of Vermont, but remember, the only real leg they have to stand on here is a very problematic legal history of the label "GMO" meaning "nothing" under the law: the very same argument (in the very same way) that was settled by Milk, that HGH-containing milk shouldn't "have to be" labeled on the cartons, because the health effects were "imaginary."

Remember that one? The ultimate settlement was the cringe-inducing "allowance" to producers to be able to put "HGH-Free" on, BUT to also have to include the blanket statement that "HGH has not been shown" (in the industry's terms) to cause health problems. Even in the case of milk, that disclaimer is falling flat. When buyers see it, they remember how badly industry (all types of industry) frankly lies, in order to sell their products. The outcome is that the milk industry is cutting out HGH anyway, to respond to the resultant market pressures.

In Monsanto's case, the risk for them is much greater. as soon as GMO labels ARE required, even if the industry is allowed to "hedge" to the max, consumers will be buying something (anything) else, rather than Zombie Food.

At some point in this process, Monsanto's emphasis will shift. When the PUBLICITY that WILL accompany this suit continues long enough, and the company realizes that the PUBLICITY is the new problem, they will try for a settlement, and evaluating the terms of that settlement will be the REAL danger point for activists, because one thing you can count on:

Monsanto lies.

Monsanto will propose NO settlement that does not in fact equal a WIN for Monsanto. Be aware of this coming down the pike.

I've seen this movie before:

I've seen this movie before: "resistance is futile"–the Borg; "there is no alternative"–the Thatcher.

Governor Shumlin seems not to realize that in a democracy, an informed citizenry has every right to change existing laws—even those favored by the biotech industry and overseen by a supine regulatory regime.

It is a travesty that our

It is a travesty that our leaders here in VT are letting themselves be blackmailed by the Monsanto lobbyist. That being said, I can understand the reticence of some because our Atty. Gen is not very good and has lost a couple of high profile cases lately because of his lack of competence. Hopefully, we will get a new AG this fall who will be more competent to handle cases like these. In the meantime, we will keep pushing the legislature and the governor to do the right thing.

I live in NYS and I would be

I live in NYS and I would be happy to donate to Vermont's legal defense fund.

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