Toward Food Sovereignty in Vermont and Northern New England




– From C. Armiger, P. Palmiotto, J. Estes, eds., Banking on Biodiversity: The ecological and socio-economic dimensions of sustainable agriculture, Keene, NH: Antioch University Center for Tropical Ecology and Conservation (in press)

The previous panelists have offered thoughtful perspectives on how US agricultural policies profoundly alter the lives of people around the world and how people in tropical Central America are beginning to reclaim sovereignty over their food supply. I’d like to bring the discussion home by addressing the problem of increasing corporate control over our own food, and exploring some ways we can begin to bring our food economy back home. This discussion is in many ways an outgrowth of my research on the science and politics of genetic engineering in agriculture. For a variety of international perspectives on the relationship between genetic engineering and global trade policies, please see my 2004 book, Gene Traders, published by Toward Freedom in Burlington, Vermont.1

Once upon a time, my home region-the hills and valleys of north-central Vermont-was considered to be the breadbasket of New England. The Champlain Valley was an important wheat-growing region, and modest hill farms scattered among the foothills of the Green Mountains grew much of New England’s oats, barley and rye.

Today, Vermont, and northern New England as a whole, is overwhelmingly a net importer of food. Bill McKibben reported a year ago in the Vermont Commons newspaper that Vermont’s food imports are worth half again as much as what we export, and two-thirds of these exports are dairy products.2 Even foods we can grow in Vermont are largely imported. A Rodale Institute study of food self-sufficiency across the US, published in 1982, showed that Vermont even imports 70-80 percent of its carrots and apples.3 A recent University of Vermont study projected that only 10-15 percent of our food budgets are spent on locally grown products, but offered a hopeful assessment of the potential to significantly increase this percentage.4  David Timmons, a recent Masters degree recipient from the University’s Program in Community Development and Applied Economics, calculated that Vermont presently has the capacity to grow 38 percent of its food, based on current levels of agricultural production in nine major categories, including foods we mainly grow for export. New Hampshire, unfortunately, comes in at a disappointing 6 percent.

How did it come to this? And, even more importantly, in an era of rising fuel prices and wars for oil, how do we begin to change the situation?

Many factors contributed to the loss of Vermont’s traditional agricultural base. From the westward migrations of the mid-19th century, to the coming of the railroads and the creation of a national grain market, the huge surpluses generated by Western farms drove prices down and rendered New England growers economically marginal. Expanding commodity-based agriculture increasingly trumped the ethic of self-reliance that our region was said to be built upon.

In the 1950s, when Americans spent more than 30 percent of their household income on food, policymakers decided that food had become too expensive for the emerging consumer lifestyle, and that too many people were trying to make their living in agriculture. Subsidies were structured so as to create new export markets for agricultural commodities, and to encourage people to sell their farms and migrate to the cities to find work.

This policy has reverberated many times over the past half century, with repeated “farm crises” through much of the country, and prices declining to the point where we now spend only 15 percent of our income on food. A vanishing share of our food dollars actually goes to farmers, and we are often reminded that food items travel an average of at least 1500 miles from farm to table, a figure dating back to the late 1960s. Vermont lost nearly 90 percent of its farms in the past half century, and many agricultural areas of the central United States faced significant depopulation. Transnational chemical companies, food processors and grain traders, rather than farmers, came to decide how our food would be grown, shipped and processed. Today, the United States has more people in prison than are earning their livelihood growing food.

Today, a shrinking number of transnational corporations control the world’s supply of seeds and other agricultural inputs, as well as food processing, distribution and marketing. This process of corporate consolidation began with the rapidly increasing use of agricultural pesticides in the decades immediately following World War II. US pesticide sales increased ten-fold between the 1940s and 1970s, and another ten-fold since then.5 Pesticide manufacturers such as Monsanto, Dow, and their European counterparts gained unprecedented control over how our food is grown during this period. In the 1990s, they attempted to heighten and consolidate that control through the development of genetically engineered seed varieties, 80 percent of which are engineered to withstand large doses of those companies’ proprietary weed killers.6 To assure market acceptance of genetically engineered crop varieties, Monsanto and other agrochemical giants spent tens of billions of dollars acquiring the world’s leading seed companies.

In 2005, Monsanto became the world’s largest seed company with its takeover of Seminis Seeds, a Mexican company that had grown to become the largest supplier of vegetable seeds in the Western Hemisphere. A generation ago, seed production was as dispersed as milk production, if not more so; the idea of companies having global market share in seeds was virtually unfathomable. Today, ten companies control half of a global seed market estimated at $20 billion annually (see Figure 1).7 Four of those companies, Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and DuPont, are also among the world’s largest pesticide producers, and are responsible (along with Dow Chemical) for essentially all of the genetically engineered (GE) seed varieties being aggressively marketed around the world today (Figure 2).

Genetic engineering is a technology that has significantly helped drive corporate consolidation in agriculture. Monsanto alone controls the germplasm, or genetic makeup, of 88 percent of the world’s GE crop acreage.8 Bayer, best known for aspirin and other common pharmaceuticals, is the world’s largest insecticide producer. After the Starlink corn scandal of 2000-’01 cost the food industry $1 billion-and forced the recall of hundreds of name brand corn products due to contamination with a GE variety never approved for human consumption-Bayer bought the former “CropScience” division of the pharmaceutical giant Aventis. Syngenta is essentially a synthetic company, formed from successive waves of mergers, divestments and re-mergers of chemical companies from Switzerland, Britain and Sweden; they are number two in pesticides overall and the largest producer of herbicides. Monsanto is number two in herbicides; thus it is no coincidence that herbicide tolerance is by far the leading genetically engineered trait in commercial agricultural production today.

Corporate giants like Wal-Mart-now the world’s single largest corporation, having overtaken all of the big automotive and oil companies-have come to control a third of the world’s retail sales of food (Figure 3).9 Other companies in the global retail top 10 that are active in New England include the Dutch conglomerate Royal Ahold (owner of Stop & Shop), Albertson’s (owner of Shaw’s), and Costco. The unprecedented market power of Wal-Mart and other huge corporations has also driven consolidation among food processors, with increasing numbers of medium-sized companies-including many of the best known natural food processors-being purchased by the likes of Heinz, General Mills and Mars Candy.10 Added to these is the massive market power of the grain processing giants, especially Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, which together control two thirds of all the world’s shipping, distribution and export of bulk grains, and thoroughly dominate the crushing, milling and processing of soybeans and corn, the two most widespread genetically engineered crops.11

These facts and figures may appear insurmountable, but all around the world, people are saying no to corporate food, reclaiming the ability-and the right-to make basic choices about how our food is grown and how we obtain it. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become a leading symbol of this resistance, with farmers’ organizations around the world often leading the opposition. In much of Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, GMOs are at the center of highly visible and persistent public controversies, and more than 30 countries have adopted labeling rules and import restrictions, resisting pressure from the US and the World Trade Organization (WTO) to step back and simply accept this disruptive and dangerous technology.12

It is no accident that Vermont has been a leader in resisting genetic engineering in the US. Vermonters are very concerned about the quality of our food, and share a concern and identification with those who grow our food that has been all but obliterated in much of the US. Indeed Europe’s distinct food cultures have largely driven the resistance there to GMOs and agribusiness control. In this respect, by moving toward a more conscious cultural identification with the sources and character of our food, Vermont may have more in common with Europe than almost any other place in the US. Eighty five Vermont towns are on record supporting GMO labeling and in most cases, a moratorium on growing these crops, a distinction we share with more than 25 towns elsewhere in New England, as well as three northern California counties, where comprehensive bans on raising GE crops and livestock have been voted into law.

In the countries of the global South-the so-called “developing world”-agriculture remains far more central to people’s everyday experience, livelihood, and traditions. From India and Korea to Brazil and parts of Africa, militant farmers’ organizations have emerged in recent years, and joined with farmer activists from Europe and North America to create a global “peasant movement” known as La Via Campesina. Via Campesina has intervened in numerous international fora over the past decade, and has pioneered the concept of food sovereignty as a centerpiece of their demands toward various international agencies.

Food sovereignty is defined by Via Campesina as people’s fundamental right to define their own agricultural and food policies.13 This includes prioritizing agricultural production to feed people, rather than for export; protecting farmers’ right to land, water, seeds and credit; and granting countries the power to protect local agricultures from the common practice of food dumping. Since the 1950s, agribusiness companies, mostly from the US, have been unloading, or dumping, surplus commodities on international markets, thereby undercutting the value of local food in the recipient countries. Food sovereignty advocates support fair trade and have been in the forefront of resisting the myths of “free trade” advanced by the US government and the WTO.

Just as the sum of many small, local efforts have helped restrain the unchecked spread of genetic engineering and other excesses of corporate globalism, a similar convergence of local efforts can help us grow toward a healthier, more sustainable future at home. A year after Mendocino County in California became the first county in the US to completely ban the raising of GMOs, people in the town of Willits and neighboring communities launched a regional “Economic Localization Project,” inspired by awareness of the looming peak in world oil production.14 For many people across the US, “peak oil” represents the end of the unchecked expansion of the petroleum-based economy and an urgent imperative to create a way of life that can withstand what arms industry analyst Michael Klare has termed the “permanent energy crisis.”15

The WELL (Willits Economic Localization) meets biweekly, and has encouraged the creation of over a dozen projects to further the aim of energy and food self reliance in central Mendocino County. They are developing community gardens, a barter market, a school gardens project, and an effort to green their new community hospital. Other towns in the region have formed a biodiesel co-op, organized bulk purchase of fruit (and olive!) trees, and even started a yak cooperative. They’ve brought renewable energy technologies to area schools and organized local food tastings, along with a wide array of other educational and celebratory events. In 2005, Jason Bradford, one of the founders of WELL, produced a detailed study of his town’s food needs and how they can be met locally.16

Of course, food self-reliance is a more easily achievable goal in northern California than in Vermont or New Hampshire, but we are also beginning to see some heartening steps in that direction. A year ago, one group of 20 Upper Connecticut Valley residents pledged to only eat foods grown within a 100 mile radius for the entire month of January. They relied on a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, Luna Bleu, that provides stored produce all winter, on Butterworks Farm’s dried beans, wheat, corn and sunflower oil, and on diverse local sources of dairy products, bread, maple syrup, honey, and meats. It helped, of course, that they had planned ahead and put by an ample supply of produce from the past year’s gardens. They also relied on the active support of the Upper Valley Food Co-op in White River Junction, whose manager, Kye Cochran, is renowned as a dedicated local food and GE-free advocate. This “Localvore” movement has spread like wildfire throughout Vermont over the past year.

Another effort, the Addison County Relocalization Network (known as ACORN), has undertaken a detailed mapping of their county’s energy and food needs. They are working toward online partnering of growers and buyers, innovative ways for food producers to share needs, and an effort to strengthen agricultural zoning.17 One aim is to make it more difficult for prime agricultural land to be converted to other uses, a problem that has become epidemic in recent decades through much of the Champlain Valley.

Vermont has a vital network of farmers markets and CSA farms. Many growers plant a little extra every year to supply local food shelves. Burlington’s Intervale features some of the most vital and collaborative urban farms in the entire country. NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) and the Vermont Grass Growers are helping struggling dairy farms transition to more sustainable methods. Thanks to FoodWorks in Montpelier, many Vermont schools have active food gardens and horticulture programs. But much more is needed. Even a couple of decades ago, there were many more local canneries for local produce, and freezer lockers and slaughterhouses to serve those who raise animals for meat. Today we have more artisanal cheesemakers than ever before, but Vermont’s single largest cheesemaker, Cabot, has been steadily moving its production out of state since it was purchased by the regional giant AgriMark in 1993.

Two policy initiatives debated in Montpelier during the 2006 legislative session aimed to help further the goal of increasing food self-reliance. One bill was passed (H. 456), providing small grants to schools to develop working relationships with local farmers and food processors; the original bill also included training and processing assistance for school food service personnel to bring more local products into their kitchens. Another bill (H. 654) addressed the link between food self reliance and emergency management, and would have brought together emergency planners, municipal officials and regional planning commissions in a coordinated effort to strengthen and expand local food and energy supplies in preparation for potential future shortages.18

Another crucial policy area is helping farmers through the costly transition to organic and sustainable production methods. Vermont’s recently retired Secretary of Agriculture, Steven Kerr, paid significant lip service to the idea of state aid to farmers who wish to transition to organic production. This idea languished over his four years in office, but needs to be a central element in any meaningful plan to help sustain our farms and farmers. In Europe, public support for organic transitions has been widely available, and has hugely benefited the land, farmers and consumers. In Austria, 10 percent of the farms are organic (50 percent in the alpine Salzburg province), with a ten-fold increase during the 1990s after state support became available for organic conversions.19 Vermont and New England should be able to do this as well.

Can these efforts toward increased food self reliance in our region meet the dual challenge of responding to future crises and sustaining a high quality of life for everyone? Can local alternatives challenge the influence of agribusiness giants like Monsanto over all of our lives, and also meaningfully serve those who are unable to pay more for high quality local food? One of the strengths of the GE-Free Vermont movement over the years has been its insistence that we will not encourage the creation of a niche market for safe, healthy food while those who are less fortunate among us are limited to increasingly hazardous corporate-processed food. A sustainable future-a future of genuine food sovereignty-is only possible if healthy, local food is available to everyone, regardless of their economic status, family history, or access to land. In the best New England tradition, we can work collaboratively with our neighbors to create a greener future for us all.


Brian Tokar is the author of four books on environmental politics and issues, including Earth for Sale (South End Press) and Gene Traders (Toward Freedom). He directs the Biotechnology Project at the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield, and extends his gratitude to Steve Chase and Christine Arminger for the opportunity to participate in this symposium


1 Brian Tokar, ed., Gene Traders: Biotechnology, World Trade and the Globalization of Hunger, Burlington, VT: Toward Freedom, 2004.

2 Bill McKibben, “Can Vermont Feed Itself?” Vermont Commons, October 2005.

3 Cornucopia Project, “The State of Your Food: A Manual for State Food System Analysis,” Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1982

4 David S. Timmons, personal communication, February 2006; David Timmons and Qingbin Wang, “Measuring Local Food,” draft manuscript, University of Vermont, March 2006. See also David S. Timmons, Measuring and Understanding Local Foods: The Case of Vermont, MS Thesis, University of Vermont Program in Community Development and Applied Economics, May 2006.

5 Thomas R. Dunlap, DDT: Scientists, Citizens and Public Policy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981; John H. Perkins, Insects, Experts and the Insecticide Crisis, New York: Plenum Press, 1982; Paolo Palladino, Entomology, Ecology and Agriculture: The Making of Scientific Careers in North America, 1885-1985, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996.

6 See, for example, Brian Tokar, “Monsanto: A Profile of Corporate Arrogance,” in Edward Goldsmith and Jerry Mander, eds., The Case Against the Global Economy, London: Earthscan Publications, 2001. An earlier version of the article appeared in The Ecologist, Vol. 28 No. 5 (September/October 1998).

7 ETC Group Communiqué No. 91, Oligopoly, Inc. 2005: Concentration in Corporate Power, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: ETC Group, November 2005; ETC Group Communiqué No. 90, Global Seed Industry Concentration-2005, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: ETC Group, September 2005.

8 ETC Group, November 2005, ibid.

9 ETC Group, November 2005, ibid.

10 Phillip H. Howard, “Organic Industry Structure: Top 25 Food Processors in North America,” Michigan State University, November 2006, at

11 Corporate Watch, Cargill:  Arrogance Incorporated, Oxford, UK: Corporate Watch, 1999; Brewster Kneen, Invisible Giant: Cargill and its Transnational Strategies, London: Pluto Press, 2002.

12 Center for Food Safety, Genetically Modified Crops and Foods: Worldwide Regulation, Prohibition and Production, Washington, DC: Center for Food Safety, 2005; see also Brian Tokar, “WTO vs. Europe:  Less-and Also More-Than it Seems,” at

13 La Via Campesina, “What is Food Sovereignty?” January 2003, at

14 Willits Economic Localization Project Overview, at

15 Michael T. Klare, “The Permanent Energy Crisis,”, February 2006, at

16 Jason Bradford, “Food Security Report for Willits, November 2003,” available from

17 The efforts of ACORN and kindred groups across Vermont are profiled online at

18 Full texts of bills debated by the Vermont legislature are available at

19 Christian R. Vogl and Ika Darnhofer, “Organic agriculture in Austria,” The Organic Standard (Höje, Sweden), No. 34, February 2004.