Live Free and Remember

In the Monday morning edition of my neighborhood listserv, the Five Sisters (aka the Five Snitchers), my melodically-named State Representative Suzi Wizowaty posted a call for opinions on the state’s genetic engineering (GE) labeling bill, being considered under the statehouse dome.

She’s for the bill, as are most Vermonters.  Local food is big here and even if it’s from away, we want to know as much about it as we can.  After all, this is what computers are good at.  If UPS and FedEx can track every package around the world in real time, then why should we not know where and by what means the food we eat – and the ingredients in it – came to be inside our bodies?

Perhaps I digress.  It’s not a “can” question.  Of course we can get that information, that’s the easy part.  With Quick Response (QR) codes, each batch of Twinkies could tell you where each of its 39 ingredients came from (should a Twinkie eater care to know).  The question is whether or not we’ll be allowed to know.  We live in an age in which the companies that sell use everything from food to war have data mined us to a gossamer transparency and yet we’re not allowed to know what’s in our food.

Monsanto’s ostensible argument is that GE foods are substantially the same as non-GE foods.  This is accepted by the spineless curs at both the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture.  (How’s that for government inefficiency?  Two overlapping agencies and neither protect your interests.)

We label kosher and halal foods, although no one argues that having a rabbi periodically visit a yogurt factory substantially alters the yogurt.  People who eat kosher or halal prefer to know how their food was prepared.  A majority of Americans prefer to know if they’re eating GE food, but somehow that’s different.

If Vermont passes a GE labeling law, however, Suzi says, “it is all but guaranteed that we will be sued immediately. The attorney general’s office, having looked at the issue carefully (with the help of a team from Vermont Law School) tells us that we have a defensible case. That doesn’t mean we will win, only that we have a chance of winning.”

“But here’s where the legislator’s role is different from the advocate’s. Even if we win, the effort could likely cost the state $10 million. If we lose, we pay Montsanto’s expenses as well. To appeal the case further, to the U.S. Supreme Court, will cost more.”

Suzi says she’s going to vote for the GE Labeling bill anyhow and that’s why I vote for her.  If this law passes, will there be a lawsuit?  Yes.  Will it cost money Vermont can ill-afford?  Yes.  Might Vermont lose?  Yes.  Do it anyhow?  Yes.  Hell, yes.

It’s not whether Vermont can afford to fight Monsanto.  It’s a question of how far we’ll be pushed before we fight, because if we don’t fight now, we’ll be fighting on something more invasive of our rights; it will be more bruising and expensive.

It’s worth noting that the anxiety around the potential Monsanto lawsuit is not because Monsanto might be right in wanting to keep consumers in the dark about eating GE foods, it’s just about the fact that Monsanto has far more resources to throw at a lawsuit than the state of Vermont does.

This is nothing new.  Forty years ago, when Jim Jeffords was attorney general, he brought a case against the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, New York regarding its effluent dumping practices in Lake Champlain, but IP made the litigation so long and costly Vermont was eventually forced to abandon the suit.

The state is currently in litigation against Entergy Nuclear of Louisiana over the decrepit and shoddily-managed Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.  Like IP or Entergy, if Monsanto cannot get its way by buying off politicians with campaign contributions and teams of lobbyists, it will resort to massive legal onslaughts.

This is not unique to Vermont, it happens in every state in the union.  Some states, like Alaska, roll over and cash in as much as they can. Unlike Alaska, we’re a small state with a fair amount of out-of-state traffic.  License plates from neighboring New Hampshire say “Live Free or Die,” those from neighboring Quebec are more enigmatic and, to my eye, more portentous: “Je me souviens” (“I remember”).

Two pieces of good advice when the corporations want to start pushing you around.

© Mark Floegel 2013

n.b. – I should note Paul Kevin “Ricin Elvis” Curtis, whose arrest I reported last week, has been released and authorities have dropped all charges against him.

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