Agriculture Agency outlines legal issues in GMO debate

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(Host) Vermont lawmakers are struggling to find ways to protect the state’s organic farmers from possible contamination by genetically modified crops. On Friday, a lawyer for the Agency of Agriculture outlined the legal issues raised by regulation of gene-altered crops. But advocates say the agency hasn’t done enough to explore all the legal options.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Representative Floyd Nease, a Democrat from Johnson, is concerned that Vermont’s organic farmers are threatened by the spread of genetically modified crops. If organic crops are cross-pollinated by the gene-altered varieties, they may not be sold as organic.

Nease says this is no longer a hypothetical threat. He says that a grain mill in Westport, New York has begun to test Vermont organic corn and soybeans for traces of GE contamination.

(Nease) “They have zero tolerance and would reject any load found to be contaminated.”

(Dillon) Nease is a member of the House Agriculture Committee. He and some other lawmakers want a two-year moratorium on the planting of GE crops. During a committee hearing on Friday, Nease asked Agency lawyer Michael Duane a basic question.

(Nease) “How do we protect our organic farmers from GE? What’s the trick? How do we pull that off?”

(Dillon) It turns out that the issue is complicated by a bedrock principal of law enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Duane explained that the commerce clause of the Constitution prevents Vermont from doing anything to restrain trade between the states. Duane says states can impose regulations to protect health and safety, but not to restrict trade or sales. He says he doesn’t know if a moratorium would be constitutional.

(Duane) “The more your law affects interstate commerce – puts a burden on it – the more the court’s going to look at it with greater scrutiny.”

(Dillon) The Douglas administration has resisted the moratorium, and has argued against other regulation of GE crops. Instead, Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr says voluntary measures are the only practical – and legal – solution.

(Kerr) “Probably the best way to find your law struck down constitutionally is to argue that we’re making an economic argument. We’re trying to carve out an economic advantage for Vermont. And that’s what the GMO-free zone is designed to do.”

(Dillon) But Amy Shullenberger of the Rural Vermont farm advocacy group says no one really knows if the Supreme Court would uphold the proposed moratorium as constitutional.

(Shullenberger) “My frustration with the agency is that they’re coming at it from the perspective of what they can’t do, instead of pursuing the question of what’s the most aggressive thing we can do to protect our farmers. And asking that question over and over and over again until they get an answer.”

(Dillon) The House Agriculture Committee hasn’t taken any action on the proposed moratorium on GMO seeds.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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