Shining the Light in Vermont


Then he begins to speak as you listen intently, “Let me tell you about how I fought Thomas Alva Edison and his good-for-nothin’ light bulb,” he says. “He wanted to bring light into darkness! Can you believe it? Light into darkness!” He concludes, “Edison was just plain careless, but fortunately folks like me put a stop to that!”

….What….? Most of us today would find this absurd. We understand the tremendous benefits the light bulb and electricity have brought to mankind. Someday that same ‘light’ will shine on biotechnology and it will be viewed in the same regard as the light bulb and electricity.

Yet, there are those today who are fighting it. I hope we can ‘turn the lights on’ for them and others to the benefits of biotechnology before it is too late!

What are today’s anti-biotech activists going to tell their grandkids? Their version of a bright idea is to oppose an agricultural technology that allows for less need of land and other resources to feed more people with a higher level of safe and nutritious food in an environmentally friendly way.

Their latest effort is now underway in Vermont, where a few legislators are proposing to pull the plug on biotechnology. They’ve introduced a bill to hold seed companies absolutely and strictly liable for the accidental spread of genetically enhanced crops. As if this measure and its guilty-until-proven-innocent assumptions weren’t bad enough, there’s even some talk about a statewide ban on biotech crops.

The ban probably won’t succeed, but debating it will serve to make the liability bill seem like a compromise measure. Don’t be fooled, this liability bill will have the same effect as a ban and would devastate farmers who want to use the latest tools of the trade. It will also put its supporters in the awkward position of having to tell their grandkids about how they opposed sensible progress.

Much of the impetus for this legislation comes from Vermont’s organic growers, whose numbers have more than tripled in the last five years. Some of them say they’re worried about pollen from biotech crops drifting into their fields and mixing with their non-biotech plants–and thereby jeopardizing their status as certified organic farmers.

This is a classic case of a solution in search of a problem. According to the USDA, no organic farmer anywhere in the U.S. has ever lost his or her USDA organic certification because of biotechnology. It simply has never happened. Ever.

The forces behind this bill say they’re trying to defend organic farmers, but they have a different agenda altogether. Their real goal is to destroy the biotech competition. And that’s why several Vermont dairy farmers recently testified against the bill: They grow biotech corn and soybeans to feed to their cows, and they want to keep on growing their crops and feeding their cows in ways that make sense for their farms.

I’ve got absolutely nothing against farmers who choose to grow organic food. If consumers want organic products, then somebody ought to grow them. That’s how the marketplace is supposed to work.

At the same time, I believe deeply in the principle of co-existence, which says that agriculture can support a diversity of approaches to the production of food. Organic farming is one of them. Biotechnology is another. These are merely different processes, and they do not pose threats to each other. What they do is provide a ‘lifestyle choice’ that American’s are fortunate to be able to make – since all food in the U.S. is equally healthy and nutritious.

The bottom line is that biotech and organic farming already co-exist in a symbiotic relationship. And we can continue to co-exist in the future–as long as anti-biotech radicals don’t turn back the clock on progress in Vermont or anywhere else.

Rather than passing aggressive laws to make biotechnology illegal, Vermont should encourage its organic farmers to grow the best organic food they can.

As Thomas Edison once said: “There is no substitute for hard work.”

Now that’s an idea I intend to teach to my children’s children.

Terry Wanzek, a former state legislator and board member of Truth About Trade and Technology, grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his farm in North Dakota.

Terry Wanzek

Terry Wanzek

Terry Wanzek is a fourth generation North Dakota farmer. This family partnership raises spring wheat, corn, soybeans, barley, dry edible beans and sunflowers. Terry was elected to serve as a North Dakota State Senator, providing leadership to the agriculture committee and serving as Senate President Pro Tempore. Terry continues to provide leadership to the National Association of Wheat Growers and the NoDak Mutual Insurance. He has a degree in Business Administration and Accounting from Jamestown College and completed the Texas A & M Executive Program for Agricultural Producers.

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