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Brave Little State

“If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union, and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.”
– Calvin Coolidge

The Brave Little State Versus Godzilla. 

We know how that movie ends. 

Vermont is the Brave Little State. 

In this case, Godzilla is Monsanto and the Organic Trade Association.

That is an odd pairing. How did that happen?

For years there was a huge national effort to require labeling for products containing GMOs. And there was an even more intense effort to defeat those labeling requirements. Hard-fought battles in California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado ended with voters saying no to requiring GMO labeling. Corporate opponents to GMO labeling outspent supporters by millions of dollars.

The corporate opponents were companies like General Mills, Smuckers, and Kellogg’s.

Vermonters celebrating on the Statehouse steps after the passage of the GMO Labeling bill. Real Organic farmer Will Allen, Cat Buxton, and NOFA VT leaders Enid Wonnecott and Maddie Kempner are cheering after much hard work.

How could these proposals have failed in other states when most polls show 90% of Americans favored labeling? Every state faced threats that a labeling law would trigger huge lawsuits from corporations such as Monsanto, possibly bankrupting the state.

Vermont was threatened with the same lawsuits. And yet they voted to require labeling. 

We didn’t insist that GMOs couldn’t be used. We insisted that people have a right to be informed and to choose. Very Vermont.

After Vermont’s historic law, Connecticut and Maine passed similar laws that would go into effect if neighboring states joined them. Nobody wanted to face Godzilla alone.

“Right after the labeling bill was passed in Vermont, the proponents of the DARK act and their allies at OTA, helped pass a law prohibiting states from having the right to pass labeling laws, thus nullifying Vermont’s law and only allowing the federal government to pass labeling laws.” – Will Allen, ROP Farmer and Manager of Cedar Circle Farm speaking at the Thetford Farmer Rally.

So what does all this have to do with organic? USDA “certified organic” has always banned all use of GMOs. And yet, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) became very involved after Vermont passed its law. OTA went to Capitol Hill to promote what is known as the DARK Act. “Deny Americans the Right to Know”. At last, an acronym that makes sense.

The reasons for OTA’s actions have always remained mysterious to me. Perhaps it was because General Mills, Smuckers, and Kellogg’s are all OTA members. There is no longer “us” and “them.”

I was in a call with NOFA VT and the OTA after the DARK Act passed. OTA was trying to justify their actions. They were not successful, and NOFA VT resigned from OTA after that. Their departure was quiet. Louder departures came from Nature’s Path and Dr. Bronners.

“Our departure from the OTA is an act of protest to raise awareness of our concern that the important role organic plays to support the health of consumers and our planet is being compromised. We believe giant food corporations, that also happen to own small organic brands, use the OTA to influence policy decisions to protect the best interest of their large, non-organic food portfolios.” – Arran Stephens, Nature’s Path founder and co-CEO
“Dr. Bronner’s has resigned from the Organic Trade Association (OTA), citing the association’s betrayal of the consumer-led GMO labeling movement, and general drift away from the core principles that drive the organic movement.”
– Dr. Bronner’s press release

So it would appear that the “organic industry” aligned with the conventional industry. Looking at OTA’s members, they are one and the same. And by providing “organic” cover for the DARK Act in Congress, they helped to end giving consumers freedom of choice. 

I tell this DARK story again because I am trying to wrap my head around why it is so very hard to pass and enforce laws that serve us. The obvious answer is the influence of money.
 

As I said in the last letter, I am involved in a lawsuit against the USDA. I think we will win it because I think the USDA is breaking the law. But in the past, every time we win such a battle, “they” simply change the law.

“Some in the Senate, and the big corporations that back this deal, want to throw out the careful work Vermont has done – the record we have compiled – and say, ‘We know best.’ Instead of using Vermont’s law as a floor, these powerful interests are intent on stamping it out as quickly as they can. What’s driving their efforts isn’t consumers’ right to know, but on doing as little as they can get by with. They couldn’t care less if their plan sows more confusion for consumers across the country.” – Vermont’s Senator Patrick Leahy

One of the many champions of the Vermont debate was Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman, who had worked for over a decade in the Vermont legislature to pass such a law. “This is one of the cases where grassroots democracy really did win the day and hopefully we can carry it on into the future,” Zuckerman said.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signs the GMO labeling bill.

So to end this rather difficult letter, let us find a more optimistic note. We want to share one of our Know Your Farmer videos. Appropriately, this week we are sharing the video of a Vermont farm; Full Moon Farm.

Full Moon Farm is certified by the Real Organic Project. The owners are Rachel Nevitt and David Zuckerman. Rachel has taken on more of the management of the farm since David became Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor. And now David is running for Governor.

“Organic without soil is like democracy without people.”
– David Zuckerman at the Thetford Farmer Valley in 2016.
Rachel Nevitt at Full Moon Farm.

Dave Chapman
Executive Director / dave@realorganicproject.org
Real Organic Project / realorganicproject.org

“By passing this law with no strings attached, Vermont has sent a message out loud and clear: that no company – no matter how big, no matter how rich, no matter how powerful – can deny you the right to know what’s in your food.”

  • Paul Burns, Chair of Rural Vermont after the passage of the GMO labeling bill.