Farmers and gardeners are ready to get going after a long, cold winter, rounded off by a long, cold month of April. Mid-April is ordinarily a target date for planting seed for early vegetables, such as peas and spinach, though many gardeners might have been persuaded to wait a little longer for warmer weather and warmer soil.
That Vermonters maintain a deep connection to the rituals of spring — the preparation of soil, the planting of crops — is one reason for the widespread interest in the bill passed by the Vermont House last week requiring the labeling of food made from genetically modified organisms. Agriculture is a process that ties people intimately with nature — whether they are growing a few tomato plants in their back yard or acres of feed corn for their dairy herd. Commercial exploitation of the stuff of nature and tampering with genetic material seem like a worrisome violation of a cherished relationship between man and the world.
Requiring labels on food products is not going to end the use of GMOs or the power of Monsanto. It is likely that GMO labels will become so common that they are hardly noticed. Moreover, some GMO crops may over the long run prove useful, helping to enhance productivity to meet an expanding need in era when agriculture comes under new strains.
But the anti-GMO movement comes as revival of interest in what might be called traditional agriculture is reshaping the state. For generations dairy has been king in Vermont, and it is still king in terms of economic impact. But among young people looking for entry into a life on the land, dairy is not necessarily the easiest way to get started. It is capital-intensive and subject to the demands of commodity agriculture in which large-scale production becomes necessary to survive.
As young farmers look for other ways to make a living on the land, they are revitalizing the agricultural sector in Vermont. Vegetable and fruit crops are increasingly grown locally, and the proliferation of farmers’ markets and other outlets are making local crops more readily available. Dairy of a different sort is having an impact, making Vermont a center for fine cheese made from the milk of cows, goats and sheep. This is economic development that is real and is bringing new life to small towns where growers are active participants in the life of their communities.
Where there is a niche, people are trying to fill it. Thus, as Vermont has become home to numerous small micro-breweries, some growers are experimenting with whether it is possible to introduce the growing of hops in the state.
Enterprise of this sort — respectful of the land, unwilling to scale up too rapidly and too extensively, happy to focus on quality and local markets — is antithetical to the sort of agriculture that looks to new, patented seeds and the regimen of chemicals that go with them. It is becoming more widely understood that reliance on chemicals to kill pests or curb disease also kills the biological life of the soil, which is the basis of everything. Vermont farmers, growing on a small scale for local markets, are naturally wary of these industrial processes.
Labels on packages are not going to dent Monsanto’s profits too deeply. But Vermonters are cheering the GMO bill as a statement. It’s a statement that says: OK, you’re out there growing GMO corn and other crops, and that’s a particular thing that we’re not especially interested in. Good luck in developing crops that can help bring down food prices and make food more readily available in impoverished nations, but as for us, we are doing well the natural way.
Grocers and food producers don’t like the hassle of having to deal with labels. Nobody likes hassle. But people learn to deal with hassle, as grocers have learned to deal with the recycling of bottles and food producers have adapted to other labeling requirements. European nations are surviving their own GMO labeling requirements, which reflect concerns similar to those felt by Vermonters. They have set down — not a red line — but a green line, allowing them to distinguish what was made from GMOs and what was not.
It is easy to conclude that something is not harmful, until the harm is evident. Tinkering with the genetic makeup of species has the potential of touching off unpredictable ecological effects. And not nearly as much research has gone into an examination of those potential effects as has gone into the profit-making potential of modified seed.
As spring takes hold, Vermonters become part of the natural process, and many will celebrate the Legislature’s statement about protecting what is natural.