Bald: Where’s John Paul Jones when you need him?

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Michael Bald of Royalton. The GMO labeling bill, H.112, is scheduled for debate on the House floor on Thursday, May 9. If it passes there it will be taken up in the Senate in January.

So I received another message today telling me the GMO labeling bill is unlikely to make it to the House floor this year. Apparently other issues are more pressing. Really? Can someone in my state government kindly explain that? But before you do, please allow me to offer a few insights, just to set the stage.

First, the GMO labeling bill is an inanimate object; it is not a distance runner trying to navigate a course to the finish line. Nor is it a contestant seeking to impress the talent judges. Should it not be presented and voted upon this year by the state Legislature, that is clearly no failing on the part of the bill itself, but rather a reflection of leadership priorities. The governor and the legislative leaders have it within their powers to ensure that the labeling bill gets the attention it deserves. Again it is not the bill itself that will let us down by “failing to finish”; the failure is ours entirely.

I continue. My country has been at war since the day I was born. And will no doubt continue the hostilities. We had Vietnam, we still have Korea; there was the Cold War and the Gulf War. We have wound down the Iraq war and are seeking to do the same in Afghanistan. Of course these are only the declared wars, violence and oppression and exploitation still run rampant beneath the official radar on a worldwide scale. Is there a war on bugs as well? Look for that answer in any of the non-organic fruit or vegetable trade magazines. And apparently still ongoing are the wars on poverty and drugs, together with the contemporary war on terror. A full plate indeed.

In the United States the food supply has been quietly overtaken and subverted with barely a whimper of organized protest.

Well add one more to the above list. Undeclared yes, with battles often raging in far-off lands and salvos fired in courtrooms rather than in urban streets, but a war nonetheless. America is and has been under attack for decades. The target: the food system and all the people associated with food, that very basic and highly necessary commodity.

Let’s review our history by asking a simple question. How do you conquer a land or impose your will on a population? Simple: control the food supply. Do this and you control the lives of the people. Quick, how do you push a native tribe off its ancestral lands so you can access the area and exploit resources? Ruin their food supply … this is the thinking that has driven numerous disgraceful policies from our planetary past. Rather than simply destroying homes and killing livestock, go the next step and destroy all food-related tools, like cook pots and storage containers. Scorched earth warfare, the poisoning of wells and concentration camps in the South African Boer War … the list is long. Need to gain the upperhand against a powerful rebellion? Control the Shenandoah Valley, otherwise known as the breadbasket of the Confederacy. Make the business of living impossible.

Quite simple really, and in the United States the food supply has been quietly overtaken and subverted with barely a whimper of organized protest. There have been admirable exhibitions of raw courage as individual farmers and citizens and parents have sought to challenge genetically engineered foods in recent decades. European countries have relied on precautionary principles to hold GMOs at bay. But all the issues associated with GMOs will never be explored or addressed in the United States until a state or a collection of citizens demands action, transparency and accountability.

Personally, I would find it inexcusable and unconscionable for the Vermont Legislature to adjourn its session without considering the GMO labeling bill. If we were at war, and I’ve just pointed out that we are, there would be no talk of session deadlines. Our state representatives would work until the job was done. And yet, nothing. The white flag flies over Vermont. John Paul Jones famously got to business after taking a battering at the hands of an English warship. But we today? No, it’s true: “We have not yet begun to fight.” And we have no plans to fight. With threats of complicated legal action and corporate targeting, we have lowered our flag. Worse, we refuse to acknowledge our cowardice; we simply hold that we ran out of time to address the issue. Funny, we still made time to deal with medical marijuana and death with dignity. Really?

Sure, those are important issues. But food affects every Vermonter. This is not a fringe issue that affects only 10 percent of the population. It matters to all of us every moment of every day. It has broad and deep health repercussions and absolutely impacts our local economies. So I would love to hear your explanation, Gov. Shumlin, on just how it is that the most significant food question of our time never made it off the back burner. With all the freedoms we enjoy, what else is there if we do not have freedom of food choice? We have legal choices on the subject of pregnancy, we can choose from a wide assortment of available firearms, we’ll soon be able to legally medicate ourselves with marijuana. And we’ll even be able to die with dignity. How ironic … wish I could have at least eaten with dignity.

I should point out here that I am a veteran, and I do not take the war theme lightly at all. This is serious business. People have died in this struggle for control over the world’s food supplies, while others have made a pile of money. That’s how they afford their legal arsenal. And while many in Vermont would say they are doing everything they can to support good food produced locally, the issue reaches beyond Vermont. As with the world of energy and fossil fuels, to make any kind of a difference we need to reach beyond our own immediate orbit. A Vermont food labeling bill, fearlessly engaged, would be a step in that direction. Last year’s bill was weak, pathetic even in its dependence on action in California, but the bill this year is more potent and thorough, thanks to significant contributions of legal advice and the tireless work of non-profits and public interest organizations. If nothing else, we need to demonstrate our gratitude by bringing the bill up on deck and steeling ourselves for, sadly, a battle. Don’t tell me the bill is stuck in committee. What do you do when your tractor gets stuck in a soft spot? Change professions? No, you un-stuck it, and yes, you might get dirty. Nothing wrong with a little dirt.

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  • Ron Pulcer

    The Legislature has spent a LOT of time discussing which taxes to raise to plug the budget hole of about $10M. But in the end, due to “possibility” of Federal Internet Sales Tax law, and better than expected revenue projections, they now won’t be raising more taxes (beyond the already implemented gas tax increase).

    So now they have little time left to put forth / vote on a GMO labeling law. Like Congress, this issue (can) has been “kicked down the road” for a 2nd year in a row.

    But the House was able to pass a SuperPAC $5K donation limit, but with unlimited donations to political parties. They already have an eye on 2014 Election, so they can come back to Montpelier and kick more cans down the road.

  • I’m glad you did finally explain the title towards the middle, because I was really wondering what the bass player from Led Zeppelin had to do with GMO labelling.


    Like Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat crap”.

  • Karl Riemer

    This piece is a marvel of bombast. Great gobbets of self-righteous indignation and convoluted, scrambled metaphors but not a cogent argument to be found. I think that’s based on the assumption that the cause is self-evidently just, so anything less than complete allegiance must be due to some moral defect. Well, here’s news: plenty of sober, intelligent, compassionate and well-educated people believe opposition to GMO food is reflexive (as in, unreflective) conservatism, based entirely on ignorance and fear, akin to denial of climate change or rejection of renewable energy, or, in earlier times, internal combustion, electricity and artificial insemination. These people have no stake in Monsanto, only in avoiding famine (or postponing famine) and have calculated that genetic modification is the single most potent tool to apply in that task. They will explain that genetically modified food isn’t merely desirable, it is absolutely inevitable; genetic modification is the modern version of hybridization (or hybridizing is the now-obsolete, too-slow method of genetic modification) and trying to hold back the tide of agricultural progress is like, well, commanding any tide to retreat. These people talk to legislators.

    Now I’m not saying these people are correct, I don’t believe they are correct, but their arguments are more likely to gain a sympathetic ear than accusations that anyone less convinced than you are of the unassailable rightness of your opinion must be motivated by cowardice, corruption, a preference for war or whatever this diatribe is trying to say. With opponents like you, their job is easier. I was surprised to hear you’re a veteran. From the vituperative tone, black/white thinking and general confusion of myth and reality, I was sure you were in high school.


      Karl, what in heavens name is WRONG with putting a label on food to tell the consumer what they are eating? I would like to know what I am putting in my mouth. When I buy heirloom seeds, I want to trust the labels. When I buy organic, I want to trust the labels.

    • Melanie Fritz

      Karl has his eyes closed and his head is buried in the sand. The GMO issue comes down to common sense, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that GE foods are not good for us (not to mention that MONSANTO is forcing GMOs on us, and they don’t have the best track record in regards to human health concerns).
      We all need to share our knowledge as much as we can and try to put a stop to this malevolence.
      Thank you for the great article Michael!

  • Mark Moore

    The GMO Labeling bill is a waste of time and money. We have been down this road with milk and the outcome is as obvious – legal challenge and another loss for the state after spending taxpayer dollars that could be much better spent.

    Fortunately, there is a simple solution that that requires no regulation and allows consumers to be concise of what they are putting in their bodies. Producers of GMO free products can lable them (prominently) as GMO Free! Personally, I assume anything that is not marked GMO Free has GMO’s – they are ubiquitous. Same is true with milk – Booth Brothers displays a “rBST Free” label – so those who care know and can choose that product. It works for Milk and it can work for GMO’s without the regulation and cost. Let’s have our elected officials work on more important issues where they can make a real progress, not spend more money defending unnecessary legislation that is doomed to failure.

  • walter moses

    I am really tired of Karl. Sounds like an analyst for Goldman Saks. I have farmed for some 40 years. Monsanto sucks, and so does their products.

    • Melanie Fritz

      Well said Walter!

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