Category Archives: Agriculture

Sorrell outlines state’s GMO case for lawmakers

MONTPELIER — Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell told the Senate Agriculture Committee Wednesday that he expects a judge to rule on dueling motions in the GMO labeling case within the next three months, which will help lay out a path for the rest of the case.

A host of food industry groups filed suit last year against the state’s GMO labeling law, set to take effect July 1, 2016, claiming it is unconstitutional. Sorrell briefed the committee Wednesday on the status of the case.

The plaintiffs have asked the judge for a summary judgment, claiming the state is restricting their free speech rights by forcing them to label products that contain GMOs. They also claim the state cannot prevent them from calling a product natural if it contains GMOs.

The state has filed a motion for dismissal of the lawsuit. Oral arguments have already been heard, and Sorrell said the state “attacked each count of the plaintiffs’ complaint.”

In some cases, restricting the right to speech can be unconstitutional, according to Sorrell.

“In first amendment free speech arena, there’s the freedom to speak or the freedom to remain silent. So, restricting speech can be a violation of free speech rights,” Sorrell said.

Attorney General William Sorrell testifies before the Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 28.

Attorney General William Sorrell testifies before the Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 28.

Under the state’s GMO labeling law, the state is compelling food manufacturers to state whether or not food products have GMO ingredients. “They’re objecting, saying, ‘You are forcing us to speak on labels and we don’t want to,’” Sorrell said.

In this case, Sorrell said the state has argued that it is not unconstitutional, and courts have found such compelled speech to be constitutional in similar cases.

“On the compelled speech issue we suggest that there are legitimate governmental concerns about environmental issues and public health issues as it relates to genetically engineered products, and legitimate governmental interest to accommodate religious considerations for a segment of the population,” he said.

The state’s motion to dismiss cited a case from an appeals court in Washington, D.C., one step below the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the appeals court ruled that meat must be labeled with the country of origin. The court applied a lenient standard for the government to overcome, according to Sorrell.

“We suggest in our argument that this is very much akin to the country of origin required disclosure on meat products that we’re talking about here,” he said. “We should win on the compelled speech piece.”

And, unlike products that contain alcohol or tobacco and require health warnings, the required labeling requires facts to be disclosed, much like nutrition labels.

“Unlike those kinds of warnings, what our statute requires are simply factual assertions without sort of the taint or flavor, if you will, of saying, ‘Caution, these are hazardous to your health,’” Sorrell said. “These are akin to the … kinds of closures that you typically see on products for calories, fat content, salt and sugar and the like. The standard to which we should be held shouldn’t be a higher standard because it is just a factual assertion as opposed to a warning.”

Sorrell said he is also confident in the state’s argument for prohibiting the use of the term “natural” for GMO products.

“There is no first amendment right to make either false or misleading statements,” he said.

The state’s case points to a posting on the website of Monsanto, a biotechnology company that is part of the suit against the state, that describes GMOs as “plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs.”

“We say, ‘Listen, there’s no way you can say that this is natural,” Sorrell said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, indicated he believes that posting will harm the plaintiffs’ case.

“They kind of shot themselves in the foot with that post,” Starr said.

The suit also claims an undue burden on interstate commerce. Sorrell told the committee that the law provided more than two years notice to food manufacturers of the pending labeling requirement.

“The state was very accommodating there,” he said.

And GMO labeling is already required in more than 60 countries and two other states, Connecticut and Maine, have passed labeling requirements, but those have yet to take effect.

“This is not Vermont as some island in the world that’s requiring labeling,” Sorrell said.

U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss is expected to issue a ruling on the initial motions within the next several months, according to Sorrell. That will inform both sides how the rest of the case will proceed, he said.

“I think we’re hoping to be on a track where whatever evidentiary proceeding we’re going to need to do will be done some time by late fall. Hopefully, a decision at the trial court [will happen], if not within this calendar year, then very early into the next calendar year,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Vermont calls more GMO hearings, extends comment deadline

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The Vermont Attorney General’s office is calling a second public hearing on the state’s rules to implement the ban on genetically modified organisms.

In addition to the second hearing scheduled for Feb. 4 at the Vermont Statehouse, the state has extended by two weeks the deadline for submitting written comments on the proposed rules.

The new deadline for written comments is Feb. 12.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell says officials are worried interested parties wouldn’t be able to get their comments in before the original deadline.

Last year the Vermont Legislature passed the nation’s first law to require the labeling of food made with GMOs.

A number of groups have filed suit to block the law, due to take effect in the summer of 2016.

Errors in Vermont food aid draw hundreds of thousands in federal penalties

MONTPELIER — Chronic errors in payments to beneficiaries of its food-buying assistance program have landed the state in hot water with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has handed down hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties.

Top anti-hunger advocates say the federal sanctions are doing little to correct accounting problems that in some cases have led to the wrongful denial of benefits to hungry Vermont families. And action continues to be slow in coming, according to anti-hunger officials, despite persistent pleas from caseworkers decrying the effects on their low-income clients.

The errors come most often in the form of overpayments to recipients of the program, extra money they’re forced to repay once uncovered by state audits or other reviews. A smaller percentage of beneficiaries are getting less than they are eligible to receive, and others are cut off from the program altogether, even though their incomes qualify them for assistance.

“This is a great program, and we know the state is working on these problems,” said John Sayles, chief executive officer at the Vermont Foodbank. “But we need a bigger sense of urgency in the governor’s office and in the Legislature to make the changes that need to happen so that our neighbors are eating.”

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps and now named 3SquaresVT, supplies cash benefits to more than 100,000 lower-income Vermonters. While the program is administered by the state Department for Children and Families, the benefits are funded by the federal government, and state operations are monitored by the USDA.

In June, the state got word that it had exceeded the federal government’s maximum allowable “payment error rate” for the second year running. Failure to meet the benchmarks has now cost DCF more than $400,000 in penalties over the past two federal fiscal years. And hunger advocates say the state is on pace to suffer its highest payment error rate in history for the federal fiscal year set to conclude at the end of this month.

“There really doesn’t seem to be a short-term strategy on the part of the state to address this,” Sayles said. “So we’re really concerned about not only there being errors in the payments made … but the difficulties people are having just getting access to the system.”

For the full story by Pete Hirschfeld, see the Rutland Herald.

Legalize it? Shumlin welcomes new cannabis debate in Vermont

In the wake of a federal memorandum that appears to condone the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, Gov. Peter Shumlin said he’s “open to further discussion” about instituting similar cannabis laws here.

The Department of Justice issued a long-awaited directive last week that outlines a hands-off approach for dealing with producers and sellers of marijuana in states that have legalized the plant, so long as those states have put in place “a strong and effective state regulatory system.”

Shumlin, a longtime proponent of cannabis reform, signed into law earlier this year the decriminalization legislation he spent years pushing through the Statehouse. Just two months after that law took effect, the second-term Democrat said he’s ready to talk about going further.

“I applaud the Department of Justice for being more clear about how they’re going to enforce legislative issues of small amounts of marijuana,” Shumlin said Tuesday. “And I am open to a further discussion in Vermont about what makes the most sense for this state.”

Shumlin hasn’t sought to bring the issue to the fore, and his comments about marijuana Tuesday came in response to questions from reporters on hand for a press conference on an unrelated issue.

But the politically astute governor also hasn’t been shy about talking about the issue, and, as Seven Days reported last month, Shumlin is scheduled to participate in a fundraising conference call later this month with the Marijuana Policy Project, a national advocacy outfit pushing for legalization. The subject of the call: “to discuss our strategy for legalizing marijuana nationwide over the next four years.”

During the debate over decriminalization, Shumlin said legalization would fly too aggressively in the face of federal statutes that now classify marijuana as Schedule I narcotic with no medicinal value. In light of the new DOJ stance, however, Shumlin said he’s ready to talk legalization.

184 agriculture entrepreneurs vie for slices of “working lands” pie

Pent up demand for investment capital among agriculture entrepreneurs has sparked a massive response to the inaugural “Working Lands Enterprise Initiative.”

As part of an attempt to fuel a “renaissance” of the ag economy, lawmakers last year created a $986,500 pot of money from which farm entrepreneurs could apply for grants. The response was overwhelming.

The new program drew 184 preliminary applications from people seeking more than $9 million in funding. The requests are so numerous that the Working Land Enterprise Board will be “unable to invite all … applicants to submit a full proposal,” according to a press release from the Agency of Agriculture.

The time line for awarding grants has also been extended, to accommodate what will no doubt be a much longer review process.

A number of lawmakers say the response spotlights the need for investment capital among a class of businesses that sometimes struggles with conventional financing options. Many of those same legislators will argue that the state would be well-served providing some more start-up cash.

Money invested in value-added ag and forest operations tends to stay in the local economy. And the capital can often mean jobs in rural areas struggling with lower unemployment rates.

Look for proponents of last year’s “working lands” bill to use results from this first round of grant submissions to build the case for giving out more of them next year.

Bill to require GMO labeling coming up

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers plan to take up a bill in the coming days designed to help Vermonters know whether the food they pull from grocery store shelves has ingredients that have been genetically engineered.

But one legislator, who is also a dairy farmer in Canaan and uses genetically modified corn seed, says the effort by legislators and advocates is a stunt that drives a wedge through Vermont’s farming community.

Neither the federal government nor other states require the labeling of all genetically modified foods, but Vermont’s bill is part of a national movement to change that. Nearly 20 states are considering labeling measures, according to The Associated Press, amid health concerns about genetically modified organisms.

Vermont’s bill would also ban companies from calling food with genetically engineered ingredients “natural.”

Read the full story by Thatcher Moats here at the Times Argus >>>

For sale: one mobile slaugherhouse unit

Iron-stomached entrepreneurs: has the state of Vermont got an offer for you.

The state’s mobile slaughter house is up for sale, and interested buyers can place bids at the online auction house being used to sell the unit.

Officially known as the “Vermont Agency of Agriculture Mobile Poultry Processing Unit,” the portable rig has a daily processing capacity of 250 chickens or 100 turkeys.

The unit – it looks a little bit like a windowless single-wide – had been under lease by Spring Hill Poultry, but the owner there has decided not to renew.

The agency is making the hard sell in a press release fired off to news outlets yesterday:

“With the market for locally produced poultry and rabbit continuing to rise, this piece of infrastructure offers a great business opportunity,” the release promises.

The state commissioned the trailer-sized unit in 2008, matching $93,000 in state money with a grant from the Castanea Foundation. State officials apparently want to unload the thing for good now, though the Agency of Agriculture will offer ongoing trouble-shooting assistance to whoever buys it.

The unit is being sold in an online auction at http://www.auctionsinternational.com/item.cgi?show_item=0000077280, and, so far at least, the price is right. Top bid right now is $7,600, and there’s no reserve. Bidding ends at 6:18 p.m. on Jan. 13.

The mobile unit can be docked at farms or fairgrounds, or any other place with decent numbers of slaughter-ready poultry.

To check it out in person, head over to the north end of the Waterbury State Complex parking lot sometime between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 11. RSVPs would be appreciated, and you can do so by contacting Chelsea Bardot Lewis at (802) 828-3360, or chelsea.lewis@state.vt.us.