Vermont co-ops not united on GMO labelling

When Vermont adopted controversial legislation in 2014 to require foods with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in them to be labeled, the state's food co-ops were a highly visible part of the lobbying effort.  Meantime, though, the state's biggest dairy cooperative is taking precisely the opposite position and in fact is actively participating in efforts to get Congress to unambigiously preempt any such state legislation.  Note that the Massachusetts-based dairy co-op Agri-Mark is the owner of the Vermont-based Cabot Creamery Cooperative.

Here's a long dispatch from the trade publication Dairy Herd Management:

Joanna Lidback, a dairy farmer from Westmore, Vt., told a panel of Senators on Capitol Hill today how importantbiotechnology is to her family’s farm, explaining that the efficiencies of using biotech crops help sustain the business she and her husband own.

Lidback spoke before the Senate Agriculture Committee, outlining several reasons why she supports the use of genetically-modified crops, and does not support her home state’s mandatory GMO-labeling law.

“I am disappointed that my home state of Vermont passed a mandatory GMO-labeling law that is set to take effect next year,” she said before the committee.

Lidback, who runs a 200-acre farm with her husband and two sons, testified on behalf of dairy cooperative Agri-Mark, Inc., a member of the National Milk Producers Federation and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

The Senate hearing Wednesday marked the fourth time in the past year that expert testimony to a congressional committee affirmed the overwhelming scientific consensus showing that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are safe for consumers and the environment. Senators also heard how vital biotechnology is to modern agriculture, as farmers strive to produce higher yields on less land, using fewer pesticides, limiting irrigation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Lidback said that crops grown through this method are vital to sustaining her dairy, as they save her money and allow her to adequately care for her animals at all times of the year. Other farmers can tailor their growing method to what best suits their resources and soil requirements, she added.

“Biotechnology enables us to lessen the environmental impact that growing can have because less fertilizer and pesticides are used, which in turn means fewer times [on a tractor] over the soil with equipment, thereby cutting down on soil erosion and compaction as well as carbon footprint. Yields are typically higher and there are fewer weeds, growing a cleaner, more abundant crop,” she explained.

Lidback said non-GMO feed costs almost double than what she pays per ton now, which would cost her an extra $48,000 a year if that were her only option. Shipping and storage costs would also have to be factored in.

Lidback also spoke about the environmental effects of GMO crops. Through biotechnology, she said, farmers have been able to decrease the amount of pesticides they use – dispelling a common myth associated with GMOs.

“Biotechnology has brought us even more solutions for things like drought tolerance, improved nutrition, disease resistance and medical advancement, to name a few. It also could help us answer other issues such as citrus greening, American Chestnut tree blight, and maybe even human diseases like Ebola,” she said.

This is not Lidback’s first time before Congress. She testified on the same topic in front of the House Agriculture Committee back in March, and again before a House subcommittee in July 2014.

Lidback said the Vermont law is confusing and unnecessary for both producers and consumers. The law applies to some food and not others; the labels could confuse non-Vermont residents; and it will cost families more money at the check-out line. Taxpayer money is better used elsewhere, she argued.

“I generally do not believe in paying the higher premium for these foods because they provide no added nutritional or other health benefits and environmental benefits are arguable,” she concluded.

I am convinced that when differences of opinions like this arise within Vermont's co-op 'family,' it's evidence of why we need a statewide, cross-sectoral cooperative business association.  It's unlikely that the food co-ops and the dairy co-ops would change their respective positions, but it sure would be valuable if the two sectors understood each other and the basis for their strongly held views.  There is currently no forum for co-ops in different sectors to understand each other, to find common ground, and to work together when possible.  But see the Facebook page of Cooperative Vermont for evidence of an ongoing effort to rectify that situation!