Debate continues over liability for genetically engineered seeds

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(Host) Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr says he has serious concerns about legislation that would make manufacturers of genetically engineered seeds liable for damages to nearby organic farms. Kerr says he’s worried that the seed manufacturers might withhold their products from Vermont farmers if the Legislature passes the law.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) In the next two weeks, the Vermont Senate is expected to consider the so-called GE Liability bill. It’s legislation that deals with concerns about the use of genetically engineered seeds, particularly for corn and soybean crops.

The bill, which easily passed the Senate last year but died in the House, addresses the issue of liability in the event that pollen drift causes these seeds to be carried to neighboring organic farms.

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Sarah Kittell says the legislation is needed to protect all farmers in the state and she doesn’t want the state’s organic food industry to be threatened by these seeds:

(Kittle) “But one of the problems with it is there is consumer-driven marketplace, is that folks do not want the GE technology in the food system – in their food system – and they want to have a choice. There is not a mechanism to control the drift.”

(Kinzel) Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr says he has several concerns about this bill. He questions if the legislation is necessary because it’s possible that farmers might already be protected under existing consumer laws.

Kerr’s key concern is that the bill could have unintended consequences. He’s worried that the seed manufacturers might pull their products from Vermont if the law is passed:

(Kerr) “If the companies convincingly say, ‘We’re going to have to pull our products if you do this,’ then that still may be the Legislature’s choice. But I want the Legislature to pass this law with its eyes wide open. We’ve got a lot of farmers who rely on GE traits right now. Most of the soybeans grown in Vermont are Round Up Ready. Soybeans are a pain in the neck to grow in this state without that tool. That soybean product is a way of reducing one’s protein costs on a dairy farm. So it’s an economic issue to a farmer.”

(Kinzel) Passage of the bill is a top priority for Rural Vermont. Policy Director Amy Shollenberger thinks Secretary Kerr’s concerns are unfounded:

(Shollenberger) “I think it’s fear mongering and I think it shows that Secretary Kerr is more concerned about the industry than he is about the farmer. If the product is as good as they say it is, there should be no problem with assuming liability. They should be proud to say, ‘Yes, if there’s any problem with this product we will stand behind it 100 percent.'”

(Kinzel) The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to take additional testimony on this bill next week.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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