Vermont's Lust for Litigation

On the front page of the May 9, 2014 Bennington Banner, Gov. Peter Shumlin was all smiles holding up a ceremonial bill signing pen on the steps of the Statehouse.

The bill the governor was so elated about was the GMO labeling law making Vermont the first state in America to have such a law. John Herrick, of VTDigger, noted in the Bennington Banner article Gov. Shumlin's remarks: "Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: They want to know what's in their food."

The law doesn't take effect until mid-year, 2016 when those who manufacture food products that contain genetically modified ingredients will have to call it to our attention by labeling their products accordingly.

Some say that the large national and international food producers will not sit back and allow for Vermont's new labeling law to be enforced. They will bring lawsuits in an attempt to have the law nullified.

This brings us to a piece in the May 30, 2014 Rutland Herald by Neal P. Goswami. According to his article, if Vermont were to lose a lawsuit that challenged the GMO law it would cost the state, some $8 million. This piece of bad news comes on the heels of the legislature's announcement of a possible $70 million deficit next year in the state's general fund budget. What am I missing here? What I am missing is a complete lack of common sense on the part of those whose job it is to bring some sanity to state government spending. To forecast that a fund of $8 million needs to be established to defend a law that is really unnecessary borders on fiscal irresponsibility at best.

In Herrick's piece on May 9, the governor was quoted as having said: "We are pro-choice. We are pro-information. Vermont gets it right with this bill." I don't think so. I am willing to speculate that the hundreds of thousands of Vermonters who only want to have food on their tables would not wish for the state to divert its scarce resources defending an unnecessary piece of legislation. And let's not kid ourselves when we hear that the Attorney General's office will be doing the legal work-based upon past experience - it will not. It will be done by engaging the most highly trained legal minds from outside Vermont, at billing rates north of $600 per hour.

I recently received a letter from the executive director of a local food shelf organization asking for financial help. The letter contained these comments, "Our numbers of recipients continue to increase. This has been a difficult winter, with food stamp reductions, rising fuel and food costs, and perhaps job loss or sudden illness."

I have to believe that such comments could very well be the norm throughout many of Vermont's food shelf organizations. And our state leaders wish to set aside millions for legal fees to defend a lawsuit. It makes no sense.

And it is not only foodshelfs that are suffering financially due to the huge increase in demand but so is Bennington County Meals on Wheels (MOW). A recent fund raising appeal letter noted the following: "In the past year the number of meals we served increased by 25 percent to 49,000 meals. Our clients are asked to contribute $3.25 per meal, yet the average donation is $1.10."

It is worth noting when seeing these figures that the Attorney General's legal team's potential hourly rate of $600, is equal to what MOW receives in Bennington for 545 meals, an area designated as a "food desert," by the USDA. I can only assume that it is fashionably chic to be the first in the nation to have GMO labeling and spend millions defending such status rather than to assist those who consider themselves so fortunate just to get food into their homes.

In the Burlington Free Press, on May 15, 2014, Jenna Whitson noted this about children's nutrition, "Nutrition is key for im mediate growth and development and to build a foundation for the life trajectory of the individual. However, 23 percent of Vermont's youngest children - almost 1 in 4 - live in homes without consistent access to adequate food. These children are living on the least expensive, poorest-quality food, and occasionally going without."

With such statistics how can we rationalize spending so much on legal fees?

Vermont's GMO stand recently made international news. In the May 10, 2014 issue of The Economist, the GMO topic was noted with this included in the piece:

"Genetic modification is one of the most promising tools for feeding a global population that will one day hit 9 or 10 billion."

Frankly, I don't care one way or the other about placing a GMO sticker of any food product I purchase. What I do care about is the recklessness of spending millions of dollars from the state's treasury to feed litigation and not use our limited and precious financial resources to feed our fellow citizens.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.


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