Genetically modified food bill due for vote

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(Host) When the Legislature convenes next week, one of the first orders of business is a bill that addresses the controversial issue of genetically modified foods.

Among the backers of the bill are two farmers who offered a cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls of gene-altered crops.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Armand Pion and Jack Lazor are neighbors and friends from Orleans County who both make their living in agriculture.

Lazor farms organically, and he’s trying to develop a market for organic corn. Pion does custom work for other farmers including growing feed corn for cattle.

Last spring, Pion planted a field of corn about a half mile from Lazor’s organic crop. Pion says he discovered after the seed was in the ground that it was a variety that had been genetically modified to resist herbicides.

Corn pollen drifts in the wind. And Lazor was concerned that the gene-altered crop could cross-pollinate with his organic variety.

(Lazor) “It’s a really wide valley up there in Westfield Troy and the wind, if it’s not blowing from the south, it’s blowing from the west. So I was dead in the path of the pollen of that corn.”

(Dillon) Lazor says he dodged the bullet. He had his crop tested, and his corn had not been contaminated.

The contracts that cover the use of the gene-altered crops make the farmer, not the company, liable for damages.

Lazor says if his crop had been harmed, he would have lost money and his market. His only legal option, he says, would be to take Pion to court.

(Lazor) “And I really wouldn’t have had any recourse at all unless I wanted to sue my neighbor, and that’s the last thing I wanted to do.”

(Dillon) Both Lazor and Pion are backing a bill that would change that legal framework and transfer liability to the seed company.

Troy Representative Dexter Randall is the bill’s sponsor. Randall says the legislation is needed to protect farmers.

(Randall) “So in case there are any problems with genetic drift that it would go directly back to the manufacturer and not the neighbor.”

(Dillon) Armand Pion says the gene-altered corn can save farmers money. But he says it’s not worth it if the products harm his neighbor’s livelihood.

(Pion) “We was lucky enough that it doesn’t spoil his crop, but it could have. And then where would we have been? We’d be in court, instead of where we are right now, trying to protect ourselves.”

(Dillon) Vermont Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr is dead set against the legislation. He says there’s no scientific evidence that gene-altered crops are dangerous.

(Kerr) “And yet that’s what the application of strict liability clearly tries to state. Since it’s absolutely untrue, it is a fraud. Then, I can only conclude that this is another political jihad much as we often see in Washington, D.C., and I think it’s unfortunate to see in Montpelier.”

(Dillon) The Senate has already passed the legislation. Representative Randall says he’ll try to get the House to pass a bill similar to the Senate version.

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

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