(Host) The Vermont Senate has taken action it hopes will protect farmers who use genetically engineered seeds and plants from lawsuits. The legislation that was approved on Wednesday insulates farmers from legal action if their crops contaminate a neighbor’s fields. The bill makes the biotechnology companies responsible for damages.
VPR’s John Dillon reports.
(Dillon) It wasn’t a high school science class, but Essex-Orleans Senator Vince Illuzzi gave his colleagues a short lesson on the sex lives of plants.
(Illuzzi) “A corn plant is bi-sexual, I wanted to mention that because it’s important to understand how the pollination process works.”
(Dillon) Illuzzi went on to explain that corn pollen is carried by the wind, and that corn varieties easily cross pollinate. The legislation that Illuzzi supports is supposed to protect farmers if the gene-altered crop varieties, such as corn, unintentionally spread to someone else’s fields. This is a potential problem for organic growers, who must certify that their crops are free of genetically engineered material.
Under the bill, if farmers followed the company’s directions and contamination still occurred, they wouldn’t be liable for damages. The legislation doesn’t weigh the pros and cons of genetic engineering, but tries to prevent cases in which farmers sue other farmers. Senator Illuzzi:
(Illuzzi) “What this bill does do is shift liability from farmers to the commercial developers of GE technology for any damage that results from the growing of GE crops.”
(Dillon) But there was disagreement over an amendment that tries to protect farmers who don’t use the gene-technology. Advocates say the language is needed because companies have sued farmers whose crops contain trace amounts of the altered genetic material. The companies protect this technology with trademarks or patents.
Rutland Republican Senator John Bloomer argued the amendment wouldn’t work in the real world. He says the federal court would override the Vermont legislation, because it conflicts with federal patent law.
(Bloomer) “Now I don’t know which shell game we’re playing here, but basically it’s saying you could be found liable under patent law but you’re not responsible for violating patent law. That’s the same as saying patent law does not apply. You can’t do it. It’s going to be struck down.”
(Dillon) Despite the legal objections, the amendment passed 18 to 11, and was included in the overall liability bill. The legislation comes up for final approval on Thursday.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.