Why VT should label GMOs: A conversation with David Zuckerman

David Zuckerman is a Vermont State Senator and runs Full Moon Farm with his wife, Rachel Nevitt. David will speak at the UVM Food Systems Summit on June 27. In anticipation, we spoke with him about his legislative efforts to bring GMO labeling to VT and what makes VT’s alternative food system just so successful.

University of Vermont: For the past several years, you’ve been working on legislative efforts related to labeling GMOs. Why is this issue important to you?

David Zuckerman: GMOs are important to me because the introduction of these foods into our diets has essentially turned humans and farm animals into guinea pigs. We don’t know the potential health effects of these products. A recent documentary called Genetic Roulette shows some interesting correlations between the introduction of GMO corn in our diet and an increase in gastrointestinal problems. While more study is needed, shouldn’t it be our choice whether we want to be test subjects?

Also, GMOs threaten to make obsolete a number of traditionally benign methods of food production. For instance, they’ve spliced Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a relatively benign pesticide, into the genes of the plant. When you have massive fields of plants that all contain this pesticide, you develop pest resilience. Bt is something organic farmers use, and if it becomes obsolete for farmers to use it, then either some crops may not be able to be grown organically or they may become even more expensive.  Beyond that, those farmers who are using the GMO Bt crops are claiming to be using fewer pesticides, but will end up using more damaging pesticides in the future as this becomes obsolete.

In addition, herbicide use negatively impacts surface water quality and groundwater quality. And similar to the pesticide resistance, perpetual spraying with the same chemicals leads to herbicide resistance, which leads to the need for stronger and larger quantities of herbicides.

Ultimately, GMOs feed into our industrial food system model, which has, in my opinion, utterly failed our country and the planet. It has undoubtedly given us a great quantity of cheap food. But the nutritional value is cheap as well as the cost. Because these foods lack nutritional value, our bodies are telling us to eat more and more and we are becoming the more obese and less healthy.

Our food woes are symbolic of our societal values, with respect to what we deem as important. That misguided values system reaches through every piece of our economic structure.  Many people aren’t paid the wage that they deserve, which makes them economically squeezed, and they resort to buying cheap food, which is unhealthy.

UVM: Maine and Connecticut recently passed GMO labeling laws that will only go into effect after other Northeast states adopt similar laws. Do you think this will affect the willingness of the VT legislature to move forward on the issue?

DZ: I have been talking about that recently with a number of people. I am concerned with the implementation trigger language used by those states. I am concerned that some of my senate colleagues will look to these other states language as examples. The only thing is, the triggers may be impossible to reach. For example, Maine needs 4 contiguous states to pass similar laws, which basically gives NH veto power. Similarly, Connecticut’s law needs other states with labeling bills to represent 20 million people, which basically requires New York or New Jersey to pass labeling bills before it goes into effect.

Nevertheless, the fact that Maine and Connecticut have passed bills gives us more momentum because it shows that people want the right to know and that it is not just Vermonter that are thinking about this.  To get legislators in other states who are generally less connected to the food as a major issue, to pass such legislation means that the issue is real. Additionally, this fall, a GMO labeling referendum goes up for a vote in Washington State. If that passes, it will give us additional momentum as that will be a direct expression of the will of the people.

UVM: Why do you think Vermont has been so successful at building a community food system compared with other states?

DZ: The overall rural character and the difficult geographic limitations of our state are two main factors. In plenty of rural states, the landscape is so open that larger scale farming was easier to do. Here, it’s difficult to go “US average large scale” which has meant creative marketing and utilization of our food products rather than large scale commodity production. Vermont also has strong community and social values, including a thriving non-profit sector. Local food systems fit perfectly with that combination.

In Vermont, so many people are doing great things to help build an alternative food system.  Primarily, people spending their money on local products and directly supporting farmers in their work are the most important keys to a successful community food system.  We also have a thriving non-profit food culture that has helped build intermediate steps for farmers to go to the next level.  However, if we’re truly talking about feeding millions of people, the food system as a whole won’t succeed without profitability in farming. There can be a great relationship between successful farms and non-profits, but it is important for the nonprofit decision makers to understand the gaps that the capitalist economy can’t deliver, and work in those places, rather than directly competing with farms. That way they can provide a great value to advancing the local food system without harming some local farmers.  If non-profits and Universities compete with farmers either for labor, capital, or for markets, that makes it far more difficult for farms to succeed. Vermont has a lot to offer others with respect to building a successful food system. Primarily the progress has been without too many hic-ups, but it is important to also learn from where the rapidly evolving food system has also hit bumps in the road.

Posted in: Economic, Environmental, Health, Social.