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News ::
Movement Against Genetic Engineering Passes a Milestone
11 Mar 2002
This is a general overview of the town to town campaign against genetic engineering. It focuses on the campaign's goals, the vestigial direct democracy of town meeting, obstacles to fully realizing direct democracy, and campaign strategy.
By Ben Grosscup
March 6, 2002

On March 4 and 5, 2002, citizens in 28 Vermont towns passed resolutions at their town meetings in opposition to genetic engineering (GE). The campaign has been organized by citizens in towns all over Vermont with the underlying message that citizens in their communities should have the freedom to make decisions about their food system. The campaign has stressed that such decisions should be based on ecological and socially conscious ethics. This means that decisions at town meeting should transform ecologically harmful practices such as genetic engineering into an agriculture that works with nature instead of against it. The resolutions are one step toward applying these ethics. It also has been promoting a vision for community support of a vibrant and diverse agri-CULTURE. Such a vision is incompatible with the serfdom the biotechnology industry is trying to impose on farmers through conditional patent agreements, where the GE-seed is owned by the corporation and leased by the farmer.

History and Practice of Town Meeting

Vermont’s town meetings, which date back to well before the American Revolution, are the nation’s strongest surviving institutions of direct democracy. Except for a few large towns, every year in early March, well over 200 Vermont towns hold these meetings. At town meeting, citizens gather to discuss and make decisions on issues of budget, zoning, town procedure, and education. Citizens can also add resolutions to the town agenda by collecting signatures from 5% of the town’s registered voters or requesting the select board, an elected board responsible for town administration, to add a resolution. This is called “warning a resolution."

Structure of the Campaign

The anti-GE resolutions are a part of a state-wide campaign in Vermont that started in October 2001. Three organizations, the Institute for Social Ecology Biotechnology Project, Vermont Genetic Engineering Action Network, and Rural Vermont have helped to provide organizational support for the campaign. They developed sample wording for the petition, but it was entirely the choice of local campaigners on what to warn, and entirely up to town citizens on what to adopt.

Statewide Results of the anti-GE Resolutions

Most resolutions that passed included language stating that GE foods have been shown to cause long-term damage to the environment, the integrity of rural family farm economies, and can have serious impacts on human health. Most resolutions called upon legislators and congressional representatives to support labeling of GE foods and seeds, as well as a moratorium on the growing of GE crops. In addition, eight towns took steps toward ending the use of GE crops within their towns, whether by declaring a town moratorium or urging that the planting of GE seeds be actively discouraged. Anti-GE resolutions were tabled in the towns of New Haven and Craftsbury, and one was voted down in Rochester.

The Secretary of State’s Opinion on Town Autonomy

Unfortunately, many people in state government have said that towns do not have the authority to make these kinds of decisions for their towns at town meeting. The secretary of state, Deborah Markowitz, has declared her opinion that town select boards are not required to place resolutions on the warning in their town unless specific state or federal legislation enables towns to enact legislation. Markowitz’ interpretation of the law is that town meetings have no authority to pass resolutions such as moratoria on the planting of genetically engineered crops. She says that only non-binding resolutions that express the opinion of the town may be passed without specific state-granted authority. These resolutions typically appeal to state or federal decision makers to take a stand on an issue. This is because in Vermont, a legal principle called “Dillon’s Rule applies, whereby towns only have the authority to enact regulations (the moratoria could be considered a regulation) if the state specifically allows them to do so. This is in contrast to states like Massachusetts, which have broader “Home Rule” laws, allowing towns to enact any laws that don’t contradict state law. There is no state statute in Vermont that enables towns to decide whether or not to plant genetically engineered seeds in their communities.

Other resolutions were less legally controversial. Citizens in at least 34 Vermont towns broght to the floor resolutions calling for the adoption of a set of guiding principles for ecological integrity, social and economic justice, democracy, non-violence, and peace, outlined in a document called the “Earth Charter.” The League of Women Voters also sponsored a resolution calling for the state legislature to enact a voting procedure called “Instant Runoff Voting,” which would allow voters to choose second and third choice candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, president, and other elected offices.

Dispute over legality of the Moratorium Clause

One moderator in the town of Marshfield, Tom Maclay, after reading the anti-GE resolution, said that the clause calling for a moratorium was “illegal.” This opinion was repeated in some town select boards after Markowitz’ expressed her opinion and the Vermont Farm Bureau and the Vermont Grocers’ Association sent town officials packages of pro-GE materials. Numerous citizens on the floor of Marshfield town meeting questioned the moderator’s claim, some citing the vastly greater power town meetings had in the period leading up to the American Revolution. Others felt that the moratorium clause was not illegal, because even if the state only allows already enabled resolutions and non-binding resolutions, citizens have the right to make strong declarations of opinion.

Legal Challenge to Markowitz

Still others question Markowitz’ position on legal grounds. Vermont lawyer Jack McCullough, citing case law from Judge Meaker 1990 Superior Court opinion in Wood et al v. City of Montpelier, et al, said that unless a resolution is explicitly vested in another body (e.g. the state or federal government or a specific town official or the school board) it is required that resolutions warned by 5% of the town’s registered voters are warned to the town’s agenda as written. He says it’s a violation of the law that in the towns of Plainfield, Wolcott, and Bristol the select board struck the resolution for a local moratorium before citizens could even debate it.

The Challenge for Ethically informed Community Autonomy

Anti-GE activists are tremendously excited about the vast public outcry against genetic engineering. This is one of the most significant developments in the public opposition to genetic engineering in the United States. Before the 2002 Vermont town meeting day, only fourteen municipalities in the US had resolutions- now, at least 43 do, 33 of which are in Vermont. However, Campaigners and petition signers want the resolutions they legally warned to come up for meaningful public debate without interference from the state or big business. Many believe the structure of law is wrong and must change so that communities have the freedom for self-government through which they may enhance the ecological integrity of their communities, and expand the freedom of all people for safe food and economic security.
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