Genetically Modified Seed Bill Clears Senate Committee

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(Host) A bill that would make manufacturers of genetically modified seeds liable for damage to other organic crops has cleared a key Senate Committee. But the Douglas Administration strongly opposes the bill. And an industry lobbyist says if the legislation passes, the seed companies may choose not to sell their products in Vermont.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears was clearly ambivalent about the bill. He told his committee he isn’t sure which side is right – companies like Monsanto which say science has proved that gene-altered crops are safe, or opponents who charge the technology could cause ecological damage.

Before he voted for the bill, Sears talked about other cases in which the accepted science proved wrong. He recalled installing asbestos siding with his father, because the public at the time assumed the material was safe. Later, of course, scientists discovered that asbestos exposure could lead to lung cancer. Sears said on the GMO issue, it was better to err on the side of caution.

(Sears) “You can’t convince people who have been through a life where science has frequently been wrong and proved wrong later on after the damage has been done, that there is no damage. So I’m going to side with the bill.”

(Dillon) The bill has the support of organic farmers. They’re worried that they could lose their markets if their crops are cross-pollinated with the genetically modified varieties. So the legislation shifts the liability for any problem back to the seed companies, instead of the conventional farmers who use the seeds.

The bill also says that if there’s a lawsuit over damage caused by genetically modified seeds, the case would be heard in Vermont – not the home state of the seed company. The Douglas Administration strongly opposes the bill.

Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr:

(Kerr) “The bill is fundamentally flawed, because the science does not support their premise that somehow these products are dangerous. If they’re not dangerous, we shouldn’t be assigning strict liability.”

(Dillon) Margaret Laggis, a lobbyist for the industry, says if the bill passes, companies may choose not to sell their seeds in Vermont.

(Laggis) “I think they are valid concerns and they’re valid concerns because this bill would hold a company strictly liable – basically giving them no defenses – if one grain of pollen moves from one cornfield to another. If a deer walks through my cornfield and goes into your cornfield, a manufacturer is strictly liable because you made a claim to somebody that you were going to be GE free. Which is far and above an organic standard. It’s far and above any standards that exists in agriculture today. There is no such thing as pure.”

(Dillon) But Amy Shollenberger of the Rural Vermont farm advocacy group says the bill protects both organic and conventional farmers. She says the Douglas Administration has sided with the biotech industry on the bill.

(Shollenberger) “I think it’s unfortunate that Secretary Kerr keeps focusing on what the industry’s response to the bill is going to be, rather than standing up for the farmers of this state. And I think if the industry is saying that they don’t want to assume liability for their product, then Secretary Kerr should be asking them why they won’t stand behind their products and why they’re trying to push that liability on to farmers.”

(Dillon) The full Senate could take up the legislation later this week. But if it passes both the Senate and the House, Agriculture Secretary Kerr says he’ll urge the governor to veto the bill.

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

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