5.10.2013 – The Labeling of Food Produced with Genetic Engineering, Hemp, and a Special Story

It is very clear that we are coming down the homestretch of the Legislative Session, but we are not quite done yet.  The pace is sometimes hectic and at other, slow – it is the “hurry up and wait” time of year.  It is my favorite time of the year because things do move fast and things that have gotten stuck in committee can be shaken loose with a little finesse.

The House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee reported H.112, an act relating to the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering, which passed with strong support.

We identified several state interests, the most prevalent one being health.  Studies, primarily done in other countries, indicate potential health risks with genetically engineered foods in both, animals and humans, including tumors, liver and kidney problems, flu-like symptoms, skin irritation, immune system responses, digestive disorders, serious reproductive disorders, and an increased incidence of food intolerance and food allergies.

Another state interest is the environment.  The cultivation of genetically engineered crops has led to the growth of herbicide tolerant weeds, known as “super weeds”, which leads to the use of more potent herbicides such as 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, used as a defoliant during the Vietnam War.  Other state interests include cultural, personal, religious, and economic concerns.

We feel confident that we have crafted legislation that will withstand the expected challenge in court.  We are also confident that Vermont businesses will meet the challenge of labeling, in fact, many are already reformulating their products in anticipation of labeling legislation in the future.  Sixty-four other countries require the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering and Vermont may be the state that leads the way in the United States.

What is interesting is the role of social media.  On the day the Judiciary Committee passed H.112, Rural Vermont posted the result on their Facebook page.   Within 24 hours that post had been viewed by over 1 million people.  Three days later, it has been seen by 2.1 million people.  As Rural Vermont’s Executive Director, Andrea Stander, says, “The whole world is watching!”

We also passed S.157, an act that would allow for the cultivation of hemp in the state of Vermont.  Hemp is a valuable crop that is grown in Canada and China, but is still regarded the same as marijuana by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, despite its very low THC levels.  Our bill would require that farmers wishing to grow hemp register with the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets so it is known where the hemp is being grown.  It was also very important to us that the Agency make farmers aware of the possible risks such as the loss of federal loans, grants, etc.  There are farmers who, despite these risks, testified that they are willing to grow hemp if, for nothing else, to make a statement.

One of the most gratifying aspects of serving as a state representative is being able to provide constituent service.  Occasionally, we get the chance to honor a constituent with a resolution for a special reason.  I recently had the great honor to co-sponsor a resolution for Christian Stromberg of Cambridgeport and his friend, Jason Perry, who lives in the State of Georgia.

Theirs is a special story.  They have been friends since they met in college.  Recently, when Christian faced the reality of living on dialysis or finding a kidney donor, it was Jason who was determined to be the best match.  The operation was performed at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and, seven months later, they are both doing very well.

Christian’s name may be familiar because he is the founder and owner of the Saxtons River Distillery, which makes the wonderful maple liqueur, Sapling, as well as two new products including maple flavored bourbon and rye whiskey.

Perhaps, the most important goal of telling this story is to raise consciousness about organ donation, so the House designated May 5-11 as Vermont Organ Donor Awareness Week in honor of Christian and Jason.  My hope is that more people will look into organ donation and consider giving the gift of life by going to www.donatelifevt.org/organ-donation-process.

I was struck, once again this week, by how wonderful it is to live in Vermont and how fortunate I truly am.  As I took a walk during a lunch break, I went out the east door of the State House and walked down what I call the “windy” (winding) path.  I first encountered the ornamental trees, which are blooming and perfuming the air and the State House vegetable and herb garden and remembered that we were the first in the nation to plant such a garden.  In front of the Supreme Court building, music greeted me – old timey music, played on a fiddle and guitar, came from the Pavillion porch.  I shouted a hello to Supreme Court Justice, John Dooley, who was seated at a picnic table eating his lunch.  Next, I bumped into a farmer who has testified in my committee and, down the street, folks protesting the use of drones.  I love that Vermont is so open and accessible and that we can be so relaxed – I hope that never changes!