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What's For Supper? Vermont Law School Explores How the World Eats

January 27, 2011

What Americans have on their plates these days is increasingly coming from opposite sides of the food spectrum. Over the past decade, production and consumption of both genetically modified food and organic food have risen steadily in the Untied States-as have the complex legal issues surrounding these trends.

The U.S. Supreme Court's first decision on genetically engineered food, which came last year, was the focus of the first panel discussion at Pollinate and Cultivate: Seeding the Future of Our Food, a two-day agriculture law and policy conference Jan. 27-28 at Vermont Law School.

Ten student groups hosted the conference, which explored the ways in which the world eats and ways to improve our systems for growing, transporting and consuming food. The goal was to inspire innovative solutions to the challenges facing our troubled food systems and to examine issues ranging from local food movements to national policy and global impacts.

Professor Pat Parenteau started the conference by discussing biotechnology in agriculture, focusing on last year's Supreme Court ruling in Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, its potential implications for National Environmental Policy Act lawsuits and the farming of genetically modified salmon.

In Monsanto, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court's decision prohibiting Monsanto from selling pesticide-resistant alfalfa seeds until the federal government completes an environmental impact study. In 2006, environmental groups, farmers and consumers sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture, arguing that cross-pollination from genetically modified crops could contaminate conventional alfalfa fields. The groups also argued that overuse of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup, which the seeds were bred to resist, could harm soil and groundwater and promote the further growth of Roundup-resistant weeds.

Ultimately, the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service opted to complete an environmental impact study, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Jan. 27 -- the opening day of the VLS food conference -- authorized the unrestricted commercial cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa. He rejected a proposal to restrict the growing of genetically engineered alfalfa to protect organic farmers from cross-contamination.

Critics of genetically modified crops and salmon have nicknamed them "Frankenfood" in an effort to simplify their threat, but Parenteau said the issue is a "fiendishly complicated" mix of legal, scientific, ethical, environmental, economic, social and public health issues.

"The real issue is whether genetically modified food and organic food can co-exist"" he said. "The USDA thinks so, but other countries, including Korea and Saudi Arabia, have zero tolerance for any trace of genetically engineered foods."

Many U.S. crops already are genetically engineered, including the vast majority of soybeans, cotton, corn and sugar beets, producing a growing amount of profits for the agribusiness industry, Parenteau said. And that has implications for other parts of the food system, including organic dairy farmers who need certified organic alfalfa forage to feed their cattle or they risk losing their organic certification, he said.

Other conference topics included farm and agriculture business incubators; how the 2012 Farm Bill might amend the 2008 Farm Bill to protect ecosystems, family farms and consumers; food's effects on human reproductive health; global animal welfare and industrial agriculture; Native American food systems; water pollution from industrial agriculture; renewable energy source from farm products; and efforts to being together nonprofit groups advocating for migrant farm workers, small family farmers and urban agriculturists.

 

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