Agriculture secretary says more information needed for GE liability bill

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(Host) Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr wants more information before he’ll support legislation that provides farmers protection from legal liability stemming from the use of genetically modified seeds. Kerr says he’s concerned that the bill could force seed manufacturers to stop selling their products in Vermont.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Opponents of genetic engineering in agriculture won a victory in the Statehouse last year when Vermont became the first state in the country to require labels on genetically modified seeds.

They want to follow that win with new legislation that would protect farmers from lawsuits if the seeds cross-pollinate or otherwise damage a neighbor’s crops. One concern is that organic farmers could have their crops contaminated by gene-altered varieties. The bill makes the seed manufacturer, not the buyer, liable for any damages.

Amy Shollenberger is with the Rural Vermont advocacy group. She says that contracts with the seed companies make farmers liable for potential damages.

(Shollenberger) “New in 2005 is that if you open the seed package, you’ve agreed to the contract, whether you’ve seen it or not. And the liability bill is written in a way to protect people from assuming that liability without people even knowing it.”

(Dillon) Agriculture Secretary Kerr has some questions about the bill. He’s asked the attorney general’s office to look at whether Vermont’s existing consumer protection law provides enough safeguards for farmers.

(Kerr) “There’s some degree of protection or latitude that is afforded protection for farmers now. It doesn’t make sense in my mind to have a redundant law. But if the Vermont law is unclear or weak, then I think the testimony will bring that out.”

(Dillon) Agribusiness companies have used genetic engineering techniques to make crops resistant to pests or more tolerant of chemical herbicides.

The technology is gaining ground in the state. New figures from the Agriculture Agency show that last year Vermont farmers bought 518,000 pounds of GE-corn and soybeans seeds. The Ag Agency says that 19 percent of the corn seed sold in Vermont were GE-varieties, compared to 16 percent in 2003.

(Kerr) “The only concern that I probably will voice is this: Clearly I don’t want the manufacturers of these seeds to pull their products from this state.”

(Dillon) The Senate passed a version of the legislation last year, but it died in the House. The House is now under Democratic control, and the bill now has a better chance.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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