BRIDPORT — Two issues dominated the conversation at the annual legislative luncheon Monday in Bridport: bills in the Legislature to mandate the labeling of genetically modified foods and pollution regulations affecting Lake Champlain.
Farmers, community members and legislators packed the Bridport Community Hall Monday for the luncheon devoted to agriculture issues. State Reps. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, and Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, were on hand to discuss agricultural issues facing Addison County farmers.
Ed Payne of Bridport said he did not think a law that mandates labeling of genetically modified foods (often called genetically modified organisms, or GMOs) was necessary, since food producers can label their products as organic.
“I feel we have really addressed it because people who were interested in foodstuffs excluded of these additives already have the solution, with organic labeling,” Payne said. “The Legislature should stop fooling around with all this stuff, and get on with it.”
Addison resident John Ball disagreed with Payne, and argued that GMOs were a danger to both humans and livestock.
“I’m on the opposite side of the issue on this one,” Ball said. “I want to be able to know what’s in my foods when I purchase them at the store.”
Stevens said the issue has been a divisive one both inside and outside the capitol, but that a large majority Vermonters support GMO labeling.
“I’m not going to try to convince anyone of the rightness or wrongness of labeling, because I think people’s minds are made up,” Stevens said. “We’ve heard that for the last 20 years, at least through UVM research, that more than 90 percent of people are looking for labeling.”
Stevens said the state must proceed cautiously, lest legislators craft a bill that leaves Vermont open to lawsuits from food producers.
Smith also said GMO labeling was a hot-button issue in the agriculture community.
“I don’t think any of us are opposed to knowing what’s in your food,” Smith said. “Yet, the European nations have been studying and looking for something wrong with these products, but haven’t found one example of where it has harmed the environment.”
Ball said Smith’s point did not illustrate the whole story on GMO labeling.
“Every single country in the EU requires GMO labels on their food,” Ball said. “I think that speaks loud and clear.”
Genetically modified seeds, which are less susceptible to disease, were first approved for use in the United States in 1994. The vast majority of this country’s corn and soybean crops are grown using such seeds.
The GMO labeling bill currently being debated in the Legislature is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senators there have sought the opinion of Attorney General Bill Sorrell on whether the bill would generate legal challenges.
Legislators and community members also discussed proposed legislation — referred to as the Shorelands Bill — that would limit the amount of pollution that makes its way into Lake Champlain from manufacturers, landowners and farmers.
Jewett said there was broad consensus among citizens and legislators that something must be done to clean up the lake — but the details on who should bear that burden remain murky.
“There’s a breadth of support of the concept that we’ve got to do something,” Jewett said. “The good news is that there’s a consensus that we need to move forward, but I suspect there will be all kinds of disagreement about the money.”
Smith said the state is getting mixed signals from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“One of the most difficult things is the EPA is telling us to do something based on a new Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), but they haven’t issued it,” Smith said. “We’re trying to develop a plan, but we won’t by the March 31 deadline.”
Smith said that one way the state can limit pollution in Lake Champlain is by enforcing best farming practices outlined in the 1990s.
“Back 20 years ago, we adopted accepted agricultural practices, which if every state followed them would improve water quality,” Smith said. “But a good share of the farming community didn’t know those rules existed.”
Smith said the Vermont Farm Bureau should redouble its efforts to educate farmers on the accepted agricultural practices.
“We have seen an increase in the amount of phosphorus going into the lake,” Smith said. “We haven’t been able to get the outcomes we have been looking for.”
The EPA divides the country into 10 separate regions — Vermont and the rest of New England are in Region 1, while New York is in Region 2. People at Monday’s lunch expressed concern that for this reason, New York and Vermont would be subject to different pollution regulations for Lake Champlain.
“New York state doesn’t have to play by the same rules,” Ferrisburgh resident Mary Martin said. “There should be some coming together and acceptance of a same standard.”
Phil Wagner, a farmer in Bridport, said he was concerned with the shorelands protection legislation currently before the agriculture committee.
“The original TMDL meeting had stats about contributors to pollution in the state — one third each for agriculture, construction and highways,” Wagner said. “The bill I read was 90-95 percent weighted towards agriculture.”
Smith said this disproportionate burden on agriculture in the draft was due to the fact that the agriculture committee only dealt with the ag part of the bill, and other limits would be added later.
Bill Moore, the new lobbyist for the Vermont Farm Bureau, said the bill may not help the state meet EPA regulations, since the bill, in its final form, may not address Total Maximum Daily Load. The EPA could also pass new regulations the state must adhere to.
An added problem, Moore said, is the dearth of funds the state has appropriated to help polluters meet TMDL standards.
“That’s just the reality, there’s no money,” Moore said. “We don’t currently have a funding mechanism for what the EPA is going to require of us, I just want to be very clear about that.”
Stevens painted a financial picture of what the state needs to meet federal TMDL standards. He said the Shorelands Bill would increase taxes on rooms, meals and alcohol by a quarter of a percent, and 1 percent on car rental taxes.
“The total sum of that proposal is $4 million annually,” Stevens said.
Stevens said the state will need $15 million annually for the next 10 years to meet federal pollution standards, meaning funding generated by the Shorelands Bill will be woefully inadequate for the task. Smith added that the rest of the funds will likely have to come from the USDA.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation sent a new TMDL plan to the EPA Monday, a day before the April 1 deadline. The agency previously rejected Vermont’s water quality plan in 2011.
STATE REP. WILL Stevens listens to a discussion during the Ag Lunch in Bridport Monday afternoon. Independent photo/Trent Campbell