Agriculture and food production is a significant sector of the Vermont economy. The Vermont Seal of Quality and the use of the word Vermont on a product label have come to indicate product purity. The introduction of genetically engineered (GE) seeds has changed the way that consumers look at the food they eat, and could ultimately affect the impression held by consumers about food grown in Vermont or processed here.
The health and vitality of many Vermont businesses not directly involved in agriculture or food production depend substantially on the high reputation of Vermont farmers for producing food that is safe and of the best quality.1 Vermont entrepreneurs have succeeded, at considerable expense and effort over a long period of time, in marketing all kinds of Vermont goods and services at premium prices by being identified with Vermont agriculture. The use of genetically engineered applications by Vermont farmers could undermine the marketing achievement of the larger Vermont economy.
Farmers and producers rely on consumer choice to market the Vermont "brand." People who are purchasing food for their families deserve to know what they are eating and how it was grown, in order to make informed decisions about their health. Vermont farmers need to make informed choices about the way that they want to grow and market their produce—whether organic or simply without genetic modifications engineered in a laboratory.
Genetic modification/engineering is a set of new technologies that alter the genetic makeup of living organisms. Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the result is said to be a "genetically modified organism," or a GMO.2
Proponents of genetic engineering claim to have the potential to decrease adverse environmental effects of conventional agriculture, e.g., by reducing the need for pesticides or increasing yields for farmers.
Opponents of genetic engineering say these claims must be balanced against potential environmental, food safety and societal problems, such as the introduction of allergens, the transfer of engineered genes to other species, the emergence of pesticide-resistant pests, and the adverse effects on small farmers or developing nations.3
The weight of evidence from scientific studies of the potential positive and negative effects of GMOs is not yet conclusive. Studies at Midwestern land grant colleges have determined that the yield effects of GE crops are essentially neutral. More recent studies support this conclusion.4
Along with the short-term effects mentioned above, research demonstrates that over the long-term GMOs are inherently destabilizing of the genetic and ecological integrity of living systems. The research also shows that the technology is fundamentally unpredictable and unreliable in its genetic and ecological consequences.5
Prevalence of GMOs
In 2003, approximately 30% of all field corn, 70% of all canola, 80% of all soybeans, and 73% of all cotton grown in the United States was genetically engineered. U.S. farmers also grew small amounts of genetically engineered papayas, summer squash, and insect-resistant sweet corn.6
The Grocery Manufactures of America says 70% to 80% of processed foods sold in supermarkets contain products made from genetically engineered corn, soybeans or cottonseed oil.
In Vermont, the data on the prevalence of GMOs is sparse. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture says that 22% of all seeds sold in VT by weight, which means mostly corn, are GMO, and that perhaps five percent of Vermont's corn acreage is genetically modified.7 The "do nothing" option can only lead to greater GMOs in Vermont, as recent experience shows.
Vermont has experienced its first evidence of contamination. A VPIRG study released on December 18, 2003 found that an organic dairy farmer's corn showed evidence of GE traits, most likely from pollen drift.8
Recent testimony by the Vermont Secretary of Agriculture indicates that genetically engineered seeds for fruits and vegetables will soon be on the market, and be available in Vermont as well.
An ABCNews.com poll during June 2001 showed that:
- 93% favor mandatory labels on genetically modified foods.
- 57% say they'd be less likely to buy foods labeled as genetically modified.
- 5% say they'd be more likely to purchase genetically modified food.
- 52% say they'd be more likely to buy food that is labeled as having been produced organically.9
The Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont statewide poll of 697 registered Vermont voters in 2000 found:10
- Most people read food labels always or most of the time.
- The majority of Vermonters were concerned about GMOs in food and agriculture products.
- The majority of respondents said that they would stop buying products if products were labeled as containing GMOs.
- A large proportion of respondents would pay more for products that were guaranteed to be GMO-free.
The impact of GMOs on the Vermont business sector is significant because agriculture is a foundation of the Vermont economy, and the environmental and human health effects of GMOs are not conclusive.
Because use of GMOs is prohibited on certified organic farms, the threat of GMO contamination from non-organic farms will directly affect the organic farming sector.11
In the last 3 years, there has been a rapid conversion to organic in the Vermont dairy sector. There are 65 organic dairy farms with 80 more farms in active transition from conventional to organic production, which is due to the premium prices that organic milk commands. For many farmers, making the transition to organic dairy production has been the deciding factor in whether or not to continue farming, and whether or not they can sustain their dairy operation in the future.12
If crops are found to be contaminated on a wide scale, it will spell the end of VT's reputation for purity. This coupled with consumers' expectation of purity when purchasing Vermont products make Vermont businesses particularly susceptible to any negative effects of GMOs. The specific impacts that GMOs could have on the Vermont business sector include:
Impact on organic farmers
- Organic farming is a growing sector in Vermont, but its integrity is under threat from GMO contamination. The efficacy of measures to prevent cross contamination is in dispute.
- The lack of agreement on the concept of "co-existence" and buffer zones does not reassure consumers and producers who demand GMO-free food. In Europe, a moratorium and mandatory labeling preceded the enactment of 'coexistence' rules by several years.
- Vermont organic farmers are not yet at risk of losing organic certification if their organic crops become contaminated, but they do risk losing their market advantage if GMO contamination becomes widespread
Impact on conventional farmers
- Conventional growers who want to avoid the presence of genetic modification in their products are also at risk. Companies such as Gerber and Frito-Lay have been testing foods they buy for the presence of GMOs, and many natural food companies are increasing their testing.
- Consumers looking for the "Vermont Brand" are not always seeking organic products, but will still seek GMO-free products.
Impact on food manufacturers
- GMO and non-GMO crops cannot be co-mingled in storage or transportation. The food industry has already incurred costs in the billions of dollars to segregate GE and conventional crops. The presence of a GE corn not approved for human consumption (Starlink) led to the recall of 300 name brand products and cost the industry $1 billion.
- GMO supporters take the position that they should have full access to the currently GMO-free logistical infrastructure of the economy and that any businesses wishing to offer GMO-free products should build a new infrastructure; a non-starter economically.
- The documentation and testing necessary to ensure integrity in labeling would incur additional costs.
Impact of potential litigation for farmers and food handlers
- Farmers are vulnerable to lawsuits claiming they have cross-pollinated neighboring fields or have incorrectly used their GMO seeds.
- Retailers and producers are vulnerable to future lawsuits if medical or environmental damage is proven in the future. Farmers who choose not to grow GMO crops who unknowingly sell products which have been cross-pollinated, could become liable.
- Insurers are becoming increasingly hesitant to insure GMO entities because the science and regulatory frameworks are unclear. Britain's major insurers all recently declined to underwrite the GMO industry.
Consumers have an expectation of purity when they buy Vermont
- A product labeled "Made in Vermont" is worth 10 percent more than the same product made elsewhere.13 The inability of the Vermont producer, retailer or farmer to assure purity will hurt the market and affect sales.
- "People think of Vermont as a clean state, an honest state, a state with a certain amount of integrity."14 Regardless of the legitimacy of their fears, consumers are mistrustful of products containing artificial ingredients and GMOs.
- Consumers may choose foods based on environmental, health, religious, dietary or other preferences. Labeling of products grown from GMO seed or stock or made with ingredients and byproducts of GMO crops is necessary to making these choices.15
Consumers are concerned about their health and the safety of their food. While there is a lack of agreement on the safety of GMOs, consumer perception of safety and purity will affect what products they buy and where they buy them. With an increasing number of consumers seeking 'organic,' 'all natural' and 'pure' foods, the inability of Vermont producers and retailers to assure purity will affect the sale of Vermont products. And the logistical startup costs for an all new GMO-free distribution system would put Vermont companies out of business.
VBSR's recommendations are:
- Label all GMO seeds sold in Vermont to ensure the consumer's right-to-know.
- Shift liability from farmers to the commercial developers of GE technology for any damages resulting from the growing of GE crops.
- Support a moratorium on the planting of GMO crops in Vermont until independent safety testing demonstrates they have no harmful effects on human health or the environment.
1VERMONT IMAGE FOR PURCHASERS OF VERMONT PRODUCTS. The Vermont Brand: Final Report, May 21, 2003, p. 13
2Human Genome Project Information. http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/gmfood.shtml
3Center for Science in the Public Interest. http://cspinet.org/biotech/
4Performance of GMOs in the Northern US, University of Wisconsin Madison Department of Agronomy, 1999, and various recent studies cited at http://www.biotech-info.net
5From: Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering, edited by Brian Tokar (London: Zed Books, 2001). All rights reserved
6Center for Science in the Public Interest. http://cspinet.org/biotech/faq.html#1
7Cropchoice.com, January 9, 2001. http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=221
8Blowing in the Wind. http://www.vpirg.org
9Organic Trade Association: How do Consumers Feel About Genetic Engineering? http://www.ota.com/organic/gmos/gmo.html
10Center for Rural Studies, University of Vermont, 2000. http://crs.uvm.edu/vtrpoll/2000/Gmo/
11Vermont had the highest percentage of organic acreage in vegetables of any state in the US in 1997 with close to 24% of the total vegetable acreage in the state being managed organically. (Source Between 1997 and 2001 the state's total certified organic acres increased by 45%.) In 2001 the first statistics on organic operators by state revealed that Vermont is one of the top ten states in number of organic acres and operators, production of organic hay and silage and for certified organic livestock. (p.22)
12Income to the state from the organic industry is derived not only from organic farmers but from organic processors as well. The gross sales in 2003 of certified organic farmers in Vermont were $15,825,995. (NOFA 2003 directory) The gross sales in 2003 by certified organic processors were a minimum of $33,831,469. King Arthur Flour has $2 million in sales using GMO free products but are not organic.
13"The Brand Called Vermont: How the Green Mountain state cornered the market on purity," Paul Greenberg, October 12, 2003, The Boston Globe.
14Marsha Phillips, president of the Vermont Specialty Foods Association.