As Labeling Law Goes Into Effect, Vermont Farmers Divided On Value Of GMO Crops

Jul 5, 2016

Vermont has became the first state in the nation to require special labeling for foods made with genetically modified ingredients. But even as lawmakers enact new GMO regulations, this state’s agriculture sector is wholeheartedly embracing the use of GMO crops. And a new report suggests that the use of herbicides has gone up drastically as a result.

The corn is already thigh-high at a postcard-perfect farm in Washington County. The crop’s vitality is due in part to routine herbicide treatments, like the one it got on a recent sunny morning from a red tractor driving through rows of deep-green stalks.

Vermont, as it happens, is one of the few states that tracks herbicide usage.

“And so we figured, well shoot, we’ve got the data, let’s take a look at it,” says Will Allen, an organic farmer and activist. “When we did we were shocked, really.”

That data is the basis of a new report authored by Allen and Regeneration Vermont, a group that advocates for the adoption of organic farming practices.

Allen says herbicide use has nearly doubled from 2002 to 2012. And he says it’s no coincidence that the increase came during a time period when almost all the state’s corn growers switched from conventional seeds to GMOs.

“And we feel like that paradigm one, is hurting farmers, is hurting farmworkers, is trashing the environment, and probably is contaminating products,” Allen says.

Over at the Sprague Farm in Brookfield, the view on GMO corn is decidedly different. Owner Keith Sprague happily welcomes a visitor to his concrete-floored free-stall barn, where fans are at a constant whir to keep temperatures comfortable for its occupants.

"We're able to produce our milk product with less environmental damage done because of GMO corn." — Keith Sprague, owner of Sprague Farm

“We’re standing in the feed bunk area looking at approximately 600 milking cows in a nice cool, friendly environment,” he said on a recent afternoon.

Sprague, whose family began farming this land 152 years ago, has converted his corn crop entirely to GMOs. Not only is he using less herbicides as a result, Sprague says the hardiness of the GMO corn has allowed him to adopt what’s known as a no-till growing system.

“We have tremendous worm activity in our soils,” Sprague says. “Our organic matter is way higher than anybody that tills.”

Sprague says he takes pride in his “progressive” farming practices. And he says healthier soil means less erosion, less runoff, and less toxic substances leeching from fields to nearby rivers.

“We’re able to produce our milk product with less environmental damage done because of GMO corn,” he says.

Brookfield dairyman Keith Sprague says genetically modified corn has allowed for new cultivation techniques that minimize the environmental impact of his 600-cow farm.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

Allen isn’t buying it. But he doesn’t blame farmers like Keith Sprague for the alleged problem. Rather he says it’s the buyers of dairy farmers’ product – namely Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Creamery – that need to alter farming practices by creating more demand for an organic product.

When it comes to herbicides, it’s the atrazine that Allen is concerned about most. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there may be a link between atrazine use and some types of cancer. And it’s a proven endocrine disruptor, which means it can impair animals’ ability to reproduce.

Allen says use of atrazine went from 71,000 pounds in 2002 to 85,000 pounds in 2012. And the use of metolochlor, a suspected endocrine disruptor, jumped six-fold, from 25,000 pounds in 2002 to more than 150,000 pounds in 2012.

Those numbers form the basis of Allen’s pitch to Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot.

“And that’s what we’re trying to push to them, saying, ‘look, you can help these dairymen switch over to organic,” Allen says.

Cary Gigeure, chief of the Agrichemical Management Section at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, says he appreciates Allen’s dogged pursuit to reform agriculture practices.

“Will Allen is a brilliant guy. He’s passionate and I enjoy having conversations with him,” Giguere says. “But if you look at the longer term trends and talk with farmers about why they’re choosing what they’re choosing, the data doesn’t support the theory, at least here in Vermont.”

Giguere says Allen has cherry-picked data to game the results of his analysis. If you track numbers from 1999 to 2013, for example, atrazine use is down by 40 percent, despite the near-total conversion to GMO crops during that time period. And if you compare metolachlor use in 2008 to metolachlor use in 2013, it’s down by nearly half, despite the fact that GMO corn acreage jumped by about 50 percent over the same time period.

"That's an inherently bad thing, that we're dumping all that into our water and it's going into our milk." — Will Allen, an organic farmer and activist

State data indicates that farmers actually used less herbicide in 2013 than they did 15 years prior. And while Vermont sees volatile year-to-year jumps in usage – herbicide use peaked in 2013 for example – Giguere says the use of GMO crops isn't a leading factor in those fluctuations.

But no matter how you crunch the data, the fact remains that farmers applied 180,000 pounds of herbicide to Vermont fields in 2013. It’s toxic stuff. And Allen says it needs to go.

“That’s an inherently bad thing, that we’re dumping all that into our water and it’s going into our milk,” Allen says. “And what is really in the milk, is the next question that you want to ask yourself: What is in the ice cream?”

Giguere says each of the herbicides comes with its own “toxicological baggage.” But he says rigorous testing protocols are in place to ensure that the herbicides are used safely, and that detectable levels in water supplies and food products are below regulatory thresholds.

“At a certain point we either have to trust or not trust the science that’s done at the national level,” Giguere says. “And if you were to ask me about the ground water data, I think Vermont is way better off than just about any other corn-growing state in the country.”

"At a certain point we either have to trust or not trust the science that's done at the national level. And if you were to ask me about the ground water data, I think Vermont is way better off than just about any other corn-growing state in the country." — Cary Gigeure, Vermont Agency of Agriculture

Allen doesn’t trust the science done by state or federal regulatory bodies. “The whole dairy industry protection game in Vermont is terrible, and it’s time that we cleaned it up, because all of us are neighbors to dairies,” Allen says. “They’ve been a cooperator instead of a regulator.”

Sprague, however, says his industry deserves more respect.

“I would just encourage an individual like Will [Allen], who obviously is very passionate about his beliefs and his way of farming, to acknowledge the fact that the world is not that small and narrow of a place,” Sprague says.

Sprague says he’s willing to acknowledge that the chemicals applied to his fields are potentially harmful. But he says he stands by the safety of his industry’s practices, and the integrity of his environmental stewardship.

“We are moving forward in a sustainable, healthy way,” Sprague says. “And we certainly would not be doing anything to cut off the limb that we’re standing on to grow this farm.”