Organic farmers threatened by GMO seed liability, report says

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(Host) A new report says that organic farming is growing rapidly in Vermont, yet faces a threat from the increasing use of genetically modified crops. The concerns are about liability. Organic farmers could lose certification if their crops are contaminated. Or farmers could be sued for patent infringement if their own crops become pollinated by the new varieties.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) According to data gathered by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, organic farming is booming in Vermont. The VPIRG report says that last year there were about 35,000 acres in organic agriculture, compared to roughly 16,000 acres five years ago.

John Cleary is certification director for the Northeast Organic Farming Association. He says it’s an especially strong market for organic milk.

(Cleary) “And I was just down at the Farm Show and the companies that buy organic milk here in Vermont are practically begging farmers to transition to organic productions to get the milk they need to sell to their customers. They’re currently shorting their customers because they don’t have enough organic milk.”

(Dillon) Those who support organic agriculture say the industry is threatened by the growing use of gene altered seeds and crops. If organic crops are contaminated or cross pollinated with a genetically modified variety, it may no longer be considered organic.

That hasn’t happened in Vermont. But Cleary says the risk is real. He also says farmers could get sued by seed companies if their products are accidentally pollinated by crops protected by patents.

(Cleary) “A farmer who unintentionally possess that patented material is at risk of a lawsuit by Monsanto or the owner of that patent. So these are real economic risks we are facing here in Vermont.”

(Dillon) VPIRG and the Rural Vermont farm advocacy want legislation that would make seed companies, not the farmers, legally liable for any problems could by the gene-altered crops.

The bill has cleared the Senate Agriculture Committee. But Canaan Republican Bill Johnson, the vice-chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, is worried.

(Johnson) “I think the downside of the legislation is that companies like Monsanto will probably not choose to do business in the state of Vermont. I mean this is a de facto moratorium on the use of genetically engineered seeds. I think the companies that produce those seeds and do so successfully and the farmers that use those successfully, would probably choose not to do business in this state.”

(Dillon) Johnson says he plants herbicide resistant corn, a gene-altered variety sold by Monsanto. He says it’s a technology that works well and should be available.

But House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Zuckerman, a Progressive from Burlington, says if the seed companies believe in their products, and are sure there’s no liability risk, then they will continue sell them in Vermont.

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

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