Food Soverignty and the Labeling Law

[This rather lengthly post is the text of a talk I gave, speaking on behalf of the Vermont Coalition for Food Sovereignty, at a rally organized by Labels for Liberty in support of Vermont H.367, a bill that would require labeling of genetically modified food.

There was an all star lineup I was proud to be a part of, including Bread and Puppet, Brian Tokar, reps from NOFA and Rural Vermont, and author & activist Bill McKibben.   He sent regrets & a strong statement of support, but I was honored to share a stage with him anyway.  As we were speaking, one those summer thunderstorms swept in over the statehouse in back of us … very dramatic and fitting.

The Vermont Coalition for Food Sovereignty (also here on FB) was founded in the wake of the passage of the so-called Food Safety Bill by the feds.  We were pretty active on the raw milk issue in the spring, hosting Butter Appreciation Day at the statehouse.  I hope to post more of that material when I get a chance. – Ed.]

Hello.  My name is William Robb. I am speaking in support of H.367 as a member of the Vermont Coalition for Food Sovereignty.

I’d like to thank Khris his crew for organizing this rally, for giving us all the chance to speak out so strongly in support of H.367, requiring the labeling of genetically modified food.

In thinking about this bill, I started to wonder – if Genetically Modified foods are as great and as safe as the likes of Monsanto are telling us, why do we have to legislate labeling of GM ingredients?  Wouldn’t these companies want to use GM ingredients as a selling point?  I can imagine a cartoon mutant, for example, singing “GMO – Great! … and More Of It …”

But even Monsanto doesn’t think that letting people know about the GM content of their food is a selling point.

And, with good reason.

We, as a people, are simply not that enamored with idea of eating genetically modified foodstuffs.  And we are even less thrilled with the surprising fact that our food contains genetically modified ingredients.

A two-year study by the Pew Initiative on Food found that most people believed they never ate GM Foods because if they had, they would have seen the label.  Focus groups conducted by the FDA (!) uncovered “outrage” that such extensive changes to our food supply could occur without our knowledge.

People felt that this meant food producers had “something to hide.”

And they do.

The health problems and the environmental issues associated with GM food hid behind a veil of ignorance perpetuated by lack of clear labeling.  This, in turn speaks to a larger topic – that of Food Sovereignty.

The connection between the Labeling bill and the broader issue of Food Sovereignty runs directly through our ability to choose what we eat.

In a society such as ours, where the lines between the government and corporate interests are increasingly blurred, it is not enough to simply cast vote at the ballot box.  It is not enough to talk to our legislators, to advocate for what we believe in, as we are doing here today.

In a society ruled by unfettered free market capitalism, we must also vote with our dollars.  We need to send our message about GM food to the marketplace as well as the statehouse.

In our democratic based system of governance, it is one person – one vote.  In our market-based system of economics, it is one dollar – one vote.

Choosing which products we buy is therefore our phone call to the legislators of the market place.  Choosing how we spend our money is the rally, the protest march, that the corporations will understand

Passing H.367, requiring the labeling of genetically engineered food is essential so we can cast our economic votes, so we can stage a rally in the market place.

Knowing what is in the food we are buying – in the food we pick for our table, in the food we choose to feed our kids, in the food we want to share with our friends – is what allows us to vote our dollars wisely and effectively.

Without this information we are essentially disenfranchised.  Imagine trying to cast a ballot on which the names of the candidates are blacked out.

Without information about what we are eating, we are being prevented from asserting our sovereignty – our free choice – over our food supply.

I state this on behalf of the Vermont Coalition for Food Sovereignty.  We are a grassroots coalition of Vermonters from highly diverse political and socio-economic backgrounds.  We are an entirely self-funded.  VCFS is dedicated to protecting the basic human right to save seed, grow, process, prepare and serve food and farm products within the state of Vermont.

We are committed to resisting infringements on these rights, addressing them in a positive productive way, seeking to engage the community in finding responsible solutions to food supply, solutions which increase opportunity and freedom for Vermont’s growers, producers, and eaters.

In advocating for Food Sovereignty we are asserting the right to feed ourselves, to provision our households, and to do so using the resources available within our communities.

The notion of Food Sovereignty may seem abstract, some lofty thing to be considered by policy wonks, or constitutional lawyers.  It is not.  It is the platform on which we stand when we address issues as diverse as raw milk sales, on-farm slaughter, and GM labeling.

As we work through these issues, we often run into concerns about the safety of our food supply.  So I will speak to these for a moment.

Industrial food production – I will not call it “farming”, or even “agriculture” – requires industrial regulations to keep the ill effects of this type of food production in check.

When a plant producing fifty thousand pounds of pre-cooked beef for our schools looks more like a Ford plant than a kitchen – then perhaps we need industrial style quality controls to ensure that what comes out is safe.

But this is not the same thing as on-farm slaughter.

When a dairy processing plant churns out three million cups a day of something akin candy than yoghurt – then perhaps a four hundred page Pasteurized Milk Ordinance is called for.

But this is not the same thing as getting a quart of raw milk from a neighboring farm, and making yoghurt on the back of your stove.

When the so-called “food products” in the supermarket are so well engineered to trigger our taste buds, so specifically designed to light up the pleasure centers of our brains that they might as well be pharmaceuticals – then perhaps they do need to be tested and regulated by the FDA.  (Yes, the same FDA requires ingredient labeling).

But this is not the same thing as a sun-ripened strawberry that you picked just this afternoon at your CSA.

So, removing restrictions on growing and production at the community scale does not work against food safety; rather it enhances it.

The Coalition for Food Sovereignty supports food safety built on sound agricultural practice; healthy meat and milk coming from healthy animals; produce gown on farms free of containments such as pesticides or the GMO crops that encourage their use.

We support a food system where trust in the safety of our food is ensured not by pages of detailed regulation, by constraints on how we can feed ourselves, but is build on relationship – knowing our farmers, understanding their practices, participating in the community of growers and producers that puts the food on our table.

Building a community based food system here in Vermont is work that we must do – but it is work that we can do, work that we are doing.  I don’t have time here to list all the projects and people, all the farms and families that are contributing to our ability to feed ourselves.  But it is some amazing, engaging, and delicious work.

In doing this work we are not asking the state for handouts, for favors.  We are not asking for special status.  We are seeking tools – tools like H.367, the GM labeling bill – that will support us in taking responsibility for provisioning our households, feeding our families.

We are fortunate to live in Vermont, where the legislature is accessible, where our representatives are as likely as not to be farmers.  We know that by speaking out in an organized, persistent way, we can pass this bill.

The Vermont Coalition for Food Sovereignty learned this through our success in changing the language of the raw milk law.  We held Butter Appreciation Day, making butter (was it with raw milk?) at the statehouse.  We made phone calls.  We held fast, and helped the Agency of Agriculture see that they have no place in Vermonter’s kitchens, no business regulation educational workshops.

In Barre, town voters passed a resolution rejecting “federal decrees, statutes, regulations, or corporate practices that threaten our basic human right to save seed, grow, process, consume, and exchange food and farm products within the State of Vermont.”

We are not alone.  On the tenth of this month, State of Maine passed a joint resolution that adopted similar language – unanimously.   The town of Sedgwick passed a food sovereignty ordnance, rejecting the state’s ability to regulate direct commerce in food.

There will be pushback.  There will be plenty of corporate money flowing into the state, attempting to perpetuate a system that depends on ignorance, that tells lies about “feeding the world.”  But, we don’t need Monsanto to feed us.  We simply need to not be hobbled as we work to feed ourselves.

We can pass H.367.  We can ensure that we know what is in our food.  We can ensure that we have the tools to build a safe, resilient food system; a food system that cares for our communities and cares for our land, a system that has us put our backs into this good work, and feeds us well.

About William Robb

William Robb, AKA OtherWill - no not the Will you are thinking of just now, that other one - is the main contributor to this blog
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