Vermont Senate Approves Seed Legislation

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(Host) The Vermont Senate has overwhelmingly approved legislation that makes seed manufacturers legally responsible if their genetically modified products damage another farmer’s crops.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The legislation addresses liability. Under the contracts farmers now sign with seed companies, the farmers themselves are legally responsible if their gene-altered crops cross-pollinate a neighbor’s fields. The bill transfers the legal liability to the manufacturer.

Senator Bobby Starr, a Democrat from Essex-Orleans, said the liability provision was a mistake. He told the Senate he’s worried that the manufacturers will simply choose not to do business in Vermont. One New York company, Seedway, has already said it won’t sell the seeds here if the bill becomes law.

Starr reluctantly supported the bill, known as S18. But he said it would force farmers to buy their seeds out of state.

(Starr) “S18, with this strict liability is going to set up a great deal for black marketing GE seeds. And we’re going to have maybe drift that we aren’t even going to have a clue where it’s coming from or who’s using the seeds. I just think that we’re setting a very bad precedent.”

(Dillon) Windsor Democratic Senator John Campbell said he didn’t want to be threatened by the seed companies.

(Campbell) “I may not speak for all Vermonters. But for this one Vermonter, I can tell you, I don’t take well to threats from international companies who don’t want to come into this state and do business on a level playing field. And this is exactly what they’re trying to do through this whole — in fact for the past three years. It’s, ‘take what we want to give you or nothing at all.’ I won’t accept that and I don’t think any other Vermonters want to accept that.”

(Dillon) The farm community is divided over the measure. Conventional farmers testified that the gene-altered crops save them time and money. Some corn varieties, for example, are genetically engineered to resist herbicides or insect damage.

Organic farmers, however, worry that they could lose their markets if the genetically altered varieties contaminate their crops.

Senator Jim Leddy, a Chitteden County Democrat, quoted the poet Robert Frost to explain why he supported the bill.

(Leddy) “Good fences make good neighbors. I see this bill, is in the absence of good fences. There’s risk of harm to some. And there’s also an absence of protection.”

(Dillon) The legislation now goes to the House, where it faces continued opposition from the Douglas Administration. Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr has said he wants the governor to veto the bill should it pass the Legislature.

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

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