That may not sound like much. After all, when we talk about Vermont we’re talking about a state with a population smaller than the total number of legal immigrants who came to the United States last year.
Yet some people hope this political cherry picking is only a start. As the website of one anti-biotech group proclaims, Vermont’s new labeling obligation “is an important first step toward enacting more stringent regulation later.”
What the activists really want, of course, is for their “stringent regulation” to strangle agricultural biotechnology right out of existence. This elitist attitude may come to affect people who won’t ever set foot in Vermont. As a new report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization makes clear, farmers in the developing world have the most to gain from advances in biotechnology.
The bottom line is that when a group of Vermont activists brag about “an important first step toward enacting more stringent regulation later,” they’re talking about hurting farmers in Africa–even if the activists themselves don’t realize it.
Driving biotechnology out of business was the motivation behind a ballot initiative three months ago in California’s Mendocino County, where voters approved an outright ban on planting biotech enhanced crops. A similar measure may appear on the ballot in nearby Humboldt County this fall.
The most curious thing about each of these jurisdictions is that biotechnology doesn’t currently play a big role in the decisions of local farmers. Although biotech plants comprise 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 microscopically small quantities. If some mysterious blight were to pass through the state and destroy its entire corn crop, I doubt consumers would know the difference upon inspecting their grocery-store receipts. 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. The important thing to know is that Vermonters want people from elsewhere to think about Vermont as a place of pristine nature. The log-cabin imagery appeals to just about everyone, and 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 an idea of Vermont that they’re trying to sell.
If these decisions affected only folks in Mendocino County and Vermont, my inclination would be to leave them alone. Far be it from me to say they shouldn’t pass silly laws. If they want to become modern-day Luddites, then that’s their business.
Yet the anti-biotech campaigns in California and Vermont are about more than the politics of symbolism. There’s a grand strategy at work here, and it directly affects those of us who use biotechnology now and hope to use it more in the future.
To put it simply, the activists are trying to win enough small-bore victories to put a crimp in genetically enhanced food everywhere.
Their successes in Mendocino County and Vermont may look like piecemeal gains. But if they keep up this track record of accomplishment over the course of several years, suddenly they will have created such a complicated patchwork of rules governing biotech products that food companies may begin to consider if the cost of compliance is worth it. Consumers may feel the same way if biotech food, despite its higher efficiency at the producer level, winds up 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 California county to approve a ballot measure modeled on Mendocino County’s. Monsanto’s decision to pull back from developing biotech wheat may embolden North Dakota’s anti-biotech leaders, who have been frustrated by the political process previously but may now feel energized.
The good news is that those of us who believe in using science to improve quality of life now understand what we’re up against. We also know that to fend off the wolves we must first stop running–and prepare ourselves 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. Over 50% of the crops grown on his farm are produced under contract for various end-users.