D’Ambrosio, USA TODAY
3:41 p.m. EDT June 9, 2014
BURLINGTON, Vt. -- There was a celebration on the Statehouse
steps in May when Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law that
made Vermont the first state to require labeling of genetically
There was music, people were smiling, and Ben & Jerry's CEO
Jostein Solheim handed out free ice cream to the crowd of about
300 people. Ben & Jerry's is in the process of going completely
One of the celebrants that day was state Sen. David
Zuckerman, lead sponsor of the GMO labeling bill. Zuckerman, an
organic farmer by trade, first introduced GMO legislation as a
representative in 1999. In 2003, Zuckerman was the lead sponsor
of a series of bills on GMOs, one of which required labeling.
Now, after 11 years, full disclosure had won the day, in
"As individuals, do you wish to be part of this experiment,
when we've had so many experiments in the past lead to not such
good results?" Zuckerman said on his farm last week. "While
questions exist, I firmly believe we should have the labeling."
But not everyone was in a celebratory mood after that day in
May. The Grocery Manufacturers Association gave notice that it
would file suit in federal court against the state of Vermont to
overturn the law. And at the Green Mountain Dairy in Sheldon,
Bill Rowell was wondering why no one was speaking up for GMOs.
After all, he thought, genetically modified seeds had done
great things for the large farming operation he owns and
operates with his brother, Brian. There are only 17 large
farming operations in Vermont, out of about 950 total dairy
The Rowells milk nearly 1,000 cows, producing 25 million
pounds of milk annually, and grow corn on 1,000 acres and hay on
500 acres for their 1,800 animals, including replacement
heifers. The brothers began using GMO seed for their corn and
hay fields in about 1996, when the seeds first became available.
"We see a greater yield, and the yield is drought-tolerant,"
Rowell said. "Two years ago, most of the country was under
drought. We didn't see a complete failure because the seed was
Then you have a year when disease is a problem, Rowell said,
and the GMO seeds are also disease-resistant.
"The fact that they additionally use less pesticide or less
herbicide to grow a crop means you end up using less fuel and
less labor," Rowell said. "I would think the community that
appears to be opposed to GMO seeds has some other reasons,
because it's doing a lot of things environmentally they should
Rowell said he thinks opponents of GMOs are basing their
opinions on sentiment rather than science, which remains
inconclusive on any detrimental health effects from GMOs after
nearly 20 years of use. Rowell believes that with an estimated 3
trillion meals eaten without documented harm, the scientific
verdict is essentially in — GMOs are no different than
conventional crops when it comes to human health.
"You can't base your society to a large extent on science and
then ignore it when it doesn't suit you," Rowell said. "What I'm
trying to look at is, how do we do this in a straightforward,
scientific manner, so we promote the human species for the least
cost possible, and the least cost to the environment."
The precautionary principle
The terrain around Green Mountain Dairy is wide open and
relatively flat, with big fields and silos dotting a landscape
reminiscent of farming country in the Midwest.
The wind blows more or less constantly at Rowell's farm,
which is why he oriented his milking barns to take advantage of
the breeze to strip the heat from the barns. The "overshot" roof
includes an opening just below the peak where heat can escape.
"Lactating cows produce an incredible amount of heat," Rowell
says. "They're racehorses."
About 50 miles south of Green Mountain Dairy, in terrain more
evocative of the green and mountainous Vermont depicted on
postcards, David Zuckerman and his wife, Rachel Nevitt, run Full
Moon Farm in Hinesburg, an organic vegetable farm with pigs and
The couple grows about 30 acres of vegetables on their 150
acres, which includes a wood lot and open land poorly suited to
agriculture. Their chickens live in "tractors" — metal boxes
that allow the chickens to move around in the pasture but keep
them more tender than free-range chickens tend to be.
"I would point you to 10 or 20 customers who say we have the
tenderest chicken around," Zuckerman said.
Zuckerman served 14 years in the House before running for the
Senate and winning in 2012. With his two-year term up, he plans
to run for re-election to the Senate in the fall.
"I know David; he's a good guy," Rowell said. "He sees it
different. I'm not going to say he's wrong, and I'm right. I'm
going to say, 'I don't know how we do this if we don't pay
attention to science.'"
Zuckerman agrees there is no scientific evidence proving GMOs
are harmful to human health — but neither is there evidence
proving they're safe, he said. The fact is that unbiased studies
have yet to be undertaken and will require many years of
research once they are begun, he added.
But Zuckerman pointed out that 64 countries, including Japan,
China, Australia and the nations of Europe, require GMO
"Most of these countries work under what's called the
precautionary principle," Zuckerman said. "You go slowly with
these new advancements and technologies. You don't do them and
then find out the problem later. Our country has been very much
the opposite way. We put out all kinds of things then find out
later: 'Whoops! Turns out that wasn't such a good idea.'"
Zuckerman also has concerns about GMOs that hit much closer
to home. One of the few pesticides he can use as an organic
farmer is a naturally occurring bacteria called bacillus
thuringiensis, effective for certain moths and worms.
"As an organic farmer, I might judiciously spray areas that
are bad, or once in a while spray the whole field," Zuckerman
Turns out, bacillus thuringiensis is one of the tools being
utilized in GMO crops, and that has Zuckerman worried.
"When it's in a plant and there for the whole season at
concentrations 500 to 1,000 times higher, then those bugs can
become resistant," he said. "If three bugs live out of 500,000
in the field because they happen to be genetically resistant,
they're going to find each other and breed. Eventually there
will be a built-up resistance to that pesticide."
If that happens, Zuckerman said, he has few options.
"I have very few pesticides that kill those moths and worms,"
he said. "Non-organic farmers have a range of tools they can
use. My concern is with tools that will eventually become
Although it's not a concern for him right now, Zuckerman is
also worried about contamination of non-GMO crops by GMO crops
through cross-pollination carried on the wind.
"In Vermont that would be organic sweet corn being
contaminated by pollen from cattle corn," Zuckerman said. "If
nobody tested, nobody knows, but if someone does test, that
farmer will not get the price for product they were expecting."
And unlike the bull that jumps a fence to "pollinate" a
neighboring cow, Zuckerman said, where the owner of the bull is
held responsible, if his fields are contaminated by GMOs from a
neighboring field, it's his problem.
Show me the impact
Both Rowell and Zuckerman are meticulous farmers. In an
entertaining parallel, Zuckerman interrupted an interview to
pick two weeds he saw growing in his rows of chard, missed by
his crew during transplantation. Rowell veered away from an
interview to pick up a single piece of trash in the grass near
his milking barn.
Green Mountain Dairy appears to have not a single blade of
grass out of place in its large complex of five barns that
measure 400-500 feet long apiece.
A massive, insulated tank, buried 16 feet in the ground,
requiring 750 cubic yards of concrete, collects the manure
produced on the farm every day to power a methane generator that
cranks out 2 million kilowatts of power annually to the grid
under Green Mountain Power's Cow Power program. That's enough
juice for about 400 homes for a year.
Rowell and his brother spent $2.75 million on the methane
project, which includes nearly $250,000 for 3.2 miles of power
line. Any excess methane is automatically burned off, preventing
greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.
This spring, Rowell invested in a drag line system to spread
manure on his corn fields. The manure is essentially odorless
after going through the methane digester.
"The system amounts to a big pump sucking out of the manure
pit and a line out into the field as much as 2 miles long being
dragged behind a tractor," Rowell said. "You can inject the
manure into the ground so there's no runoff. We're trying all
But one thing he refuses to try, Rowell said, is getting
along without GMO seed, unless there's good reason to do it.
"If you can show me it has an impact on the human body, then
I'm interested," Rowell said. "If you can show me these GMO
crops interfere with the human endocrine system, your thyroid
gland, or that it has something to do with disrupting
homeostasis, we need to change. But science says we find nothing
there that tells us that we should, so why should we?"