Biotech Opponents Win in Vermont, Target Other States

Published August 1, 2004

Opponents of biotechnology, failing to gain political traction at the national level, are increasingly pushing their agenda at the state and local levels. Their latest victory came in Vermont, where the governor signed a bill requiring seed manufacturers to label genetically modified seed starting this October. All sales will be reported to the state agriculture secretary as well.

More than Symbolism

At first glance, the new Vermont law may not seem especially important. With just under 620,000 residents–fewer than the total number of legal immigrants who came to the United States last year–the state represents just .2 percent of the U.S. population.

The activists supporting the law, however, hope this small victory will prove a harbinger of more, and bigger, victories to come. As the Web site of one anti-biotech group proclaims, Vermont’s new labeling obligation “is an important first step toward enacting more stringent regulation later.”

The activists’ ultimate goal, which many have stated openly, is to utilize “stringent regulation” to strangle agricultural biotechnology out of existence. This despite a new report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization clearly stating that biotechnology should be one of the key tools in the effort to eradicate world hunger.

Driving biotechnology out of business was the motivation behind a ballot initiative in California’s Mendocino County, where voters on March 2 approved an outright ban on planting biotech-enhanced crops. A similar measure may appear on the ballot in nearby Humboldt County this fall.

Less than Significant

Biotechnology doesn’t currently play a large role in the decisions of local farmers in Vermont or the affected California counties. For example, although biotech plants constitute the vast majority of America’s soybean harvest and roughly half of its corn acres, there aren’t any soybean or corn farmers in Mendocino County.

Vermont does grow some corn, but in very small quantities. When it comes to agricultural biotechnology, Vermont is more or less inconsequential.

But the state does produce plenty of food. When many people think of Vermont, they think of maple syrup harvested by family farmers who live in log cabins. This popular picture hardly captures the complexity of the maple syrup industry, of course. But Vermonters want people from elsewhere to think about Vermont as a place of pristine nature, and the log cabin imagery appeals to just about everyone, especially members of a consumer culture that increasingly wants “organic” alternatives. Vermonters believe their state can serve as a kind of brand-name for boutique shoppers–and they think anti-biotech politics may enhance the image of Vermont they’re trying to sell.

Costly Patchwork

If the anti-biotech measures affected only folks in Mendocino County and Vermont, they would be inconsequential. Those efforts, however, are about more than the politics of symbolism. There is a grand strategy at work here, and the anti-biotech forces make no secret that California and Vermont are mere testing grounds for more important future battles. The activists are trying to win enough small-bore victories to put a crimp in the production of genetically enhanced food everywhere.

Activist victories in Mendocino County and Vermont portend a complicated patchwork of rules governing biotech products that may render biotechnology not worth the cost of compliance. Consumers may ultimately find biotech food, despite its higher efficiency at the producer level, carrying prices that make organic food look like a bargain.

The bad news is that the anti-biotech crowd may yet experience more success. Voters in Humboldt County may not be the last place to approve a ballot measure modeled on Mendocino County’s. Monsanto’s recent decision to pull back from developing biotech wheat may embolden North Dakota’s anti-biotech leaders, who have long targeted biotechnology in the state.

On the other hand, those who believe in using science to improve quality of life now understand what they are up against, and are preparing themselves for a good fight.

Bill Horan, a board member for Truth About Trade and Technology, grows corn, soybeans, and grains on a family farm in northwest Iowa. He can be contacted via the Web feedback form at