Senate approves seed protection bill

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(Host) A divided Senate has approved legislation that would protect farmers if their products are damaged by genetically altered seeds.

The bill triggered fierce debate, and faces a possible gubernatorial veto.

VPR’s John Dillon was in the Statehouse.

(Dillon) Proponents of the bill say it provides a legal framework for farmers to collect damages if their crops are cross-pollinated with gene-altered varieties.

The bill says any lawsuit has to be heard in a Vermont court. And the legislation ultimately holds the seed manufacturers, not farmers, responsible for any harm caused by the products.

The Legislature has struggled for years with how to balance the needs of organic farmers to protect their crops with the desire of many other farmers to use the high tech seeds. The seeds have been genetically altered to make crops like corn or soybeans resist herbicides or produce their own pesticides.

Passions are fiercely strong on both sides. Rutland Republican Senator Wendy Wilton said that the bill could limit the technological tools available to farmers.

(Wilton) “Farmers told us last year that they can save money or increase profits by use of this technology. At a time when milk prices are low and headed lower, this could be critical for farm survival. And if some of those seed companies decide they don’t want to do business in Vermont because of onerous regulation or the concern over lawsuits that means fewer technologies will be available to farmers and they could have less financial or technological assistance to survive.”

(Dillon) Windsor Democrat John Campbell reacted strongly to Wilton’s argument. He said the bill does not restrict or limit the sale of gene-altered seeds.

(Campbell) “Unfortunately this whole debate has been so filled with disinformation it really in my mind has jaundiced the whole process.”

(Dillon) Campbell said that farmers don’t own the genetically altered seeds – the manufacturers do. So he says the bill is an attempt to protect farmers, by holding the seed companies legally responsible for any problems with their technology.

(Campbell) “And we want to put that farmer on a level playing field. And to say that our desire to help give Vermont farmers access to our courts has something to do with a reduction in milk prices, I just find that to be offensive.”

(Dillon) The bill passed on a 19 to 8 vote. It already cleared the House last week. But Governor Jim Douglas doesn’t like the bill, and is considering a veto. He repeated Wilton’s arguments the bill could drive the seed companies out of Vermont.

(Douglas) “I really think it’s unfortunate to pit farmer against farmer, neighbor against neighbor, to tie the hands of our farmers at a point where the prices of milk is especially low and the cost of production are going up, deny them the access to the latest technology. I don’t think it’s a good bill.”

(Dillon) Douglas said he’ll read the bill, and seek the advice of his agriculture secretary before deciding whether to veto it. Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr says he’s recommending a gubernatorial veto.

(Kerr) “It still appears to me to be more of an attempt to stigmatize the technology and in some fashion discourage the use of genetically engineered crops in Vermont.”

(Dillon) The bill may not survive the opposition from the Douglas Administration. It didn’t pass the House with enough votes to override a veto.

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

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