Dear USDA: What Will It Take?

Full Moon Farm farmers market stall

The Brave Little State Versus Godzilla.

We know how that movie ends.

Vermont is the Brave Little State.

In this case, Godzilla is Monsanto and the Organic Trade Association.

That is an odd pairing. How did that happen?

For years there was a huge national effort to require labeling for products containing GMOs. And there was an even more intense effort to defeat those labeling requirements.

Hard-fought battles in California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado ended with voters saying no to requiring GMO labeling. Corporate opponents to GMO labeling outspent supporters by millions of dollars.

The corporate opponents were companies like General Mills, Smuckers and Kellogg’s.

How could these proposals have failed in other states when most polls show 90 percent  of Americans favored labeling? Every state faced threats that a labeling law would trigger huge lawsuits from corporations such as Monsanto, possibly bankrupting the state.

Vermont was threatened with the same lawsuits. And yet they voted to require labeling. 

We didn’t insist that GMOs couldn’t be used. We insisted that people have a right to be informed and to choose. Very Vermont.

After Vermont’s historic law, Connecticut and Maine passed similar laws that would go into effect if neighboring states joined them. Nobody wanted to face Godzilla alone.

So what does all this have to do with organic?

USDA “certified organic” has always banned all use of GMOs. And yet, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) became very involved after Vermont passed its law. OTA went to Capitol Hill to promote what is known as the DARK Act. “Deny Americans the Right to Know.”

At last, an acronym that makes sense.

The reasons for OTA’s actions have always remained mysterious to me. Perhaps it was because General Mills, Smuckers and Kellogg’s are all OTA members. There is no longer “us” and “them.”

I was on a call with NOFA VT and the OTA after the DARK Act passed. OTA was trying to justify their actions. They were not successful, and NOFA VT resigned from OTA after that.

Their departure was quiet. Louder departures came from Nature’s Path and Dr. Bronners.

So it would appear that the “organic industry” aligned with the conventional industry. Looking at OTA’s members, they are one and the same. And by providing “organic” cover for the DARK Act in Congress, they helped to end giving consumers freedom of choice.

I tell this DARK story again because I am trying to wrap my head around why it is so very hard to pass and enforce laws that serve us. The obvious answer is the influence of money.

As I said in the last letter, I am involved in a lawsuit against the USDA. I think we will win it because I think the USDA is breaking the law.

But in the past, every time we win such a battle, “they” simply change the law.

One of the many champions of the Vermont debate was Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman, who had worked for over a decade in the Vermont legislature to pass such a law. “This is one of the cases where grassroots democracy really did win the day and hopefully we can carry it on into the future,” Zuckerman said.

So to end this rather difficult letter, let us find a more optimistic note. We want to share one of our Know Your Farmer videos. Appropriately, this week we are sharing the video of a Vermont farm: Full Moon Farm.

Full Moon Farm is certified by the Real Organic Project. The owners are Rachel Nevitt and David Zuckerman. Rachel has taken on more of the management of the farm since David became Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor. And now David is running for Governor.

Dave Chapman is executive director of the Real Organic Project. He runs Long Wind Farm in Thetford, Vermont.

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