Lawmakers again turn their attention to GMOs
MONTPELIER — The Legislature is again taking up the regulation of genetically modified crops, one of the most controversial issues debated during last year's lawmaking session.
Both the Senate and the House heard testimony on the issue during the past week.
The current bill is designed to hold manufacturers — rather than farmers — liable for the accidental spread of genetically engineered crops. Vermont could be the first state to pass such legislation, although Montana lawmakers are also considering such a measure.
Advocates worry that farmers who have a contract to produce non-GMO produce have no recourse but to sue their neighbors if their crops are cross-pollinated with GMO plants gown in nearby fields.
Contracts farmers sign with seed manufacturers and current law protect GMO manu-facturers from much of the potential liability related to their products, proponents of the legislation said.
But no Vermont farmers have yet lost such a contract because of contamination, and GMO seed manufacturers may not sell their seeds in Vermont if the liability law is passed, opponents of the regulation said.
"I don't think there is any need for this bill," said Dale Briggs, a dairy farmer from Addison County who grows genetically modified soybeans and feed corn for his cows.
Several of the half-dozen mostly large-scale dairy farmers who testified against the GMO liability bill Wednesday said genetically modified crops allow them to get greater yield from their property and use smaller amounts of pesticides to protect them.
For instance, a variety of corn that is resistant to insect pests can keep farmers from having to use indiscriminate sprayed pesticides.
The bill also would protect dairy farmers who use GMO seed, advocates of the legislation said. Seed manufacturers can sue farmers for patent infringement if they replant seed corn that is cross-pollinated with GMO corn. Under most contracts with seed manufacturers, farmers agree not to replant GMO seeds.
And it is possible that farmers who have contracts to provide non-GMO produce could lose their contracts if their fields are contaminated by GMO crops, Joseph Mendelson, the legal director of the Washin6gton, D.C., Center for Food Safety said last week.
"It is not that the soybeans were unusable. It is that they were unusable for the specific market for which they were intended," Mendelson said. "The threats of contamination here in Vermont and elsewhere are more than theoretical."
The fact that manufactures of GMO seed include liability protection in their contracts with farmers indicates that the concern is real, he said.
Some produce and grain buyers already are testing to make sure the products they are buying have GMO traits, and farmers in the United States stand to lose millions of dollars in exports to Europe, where there has been less acceptance of GMO products, Mendelson said.
Farmers should not be entering into contracts that require them to provide non-GMO crops anyway, professor Drew Kershen of the University of Oklahoma School of Law told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Farmers are not able to control whether GMO crops cross-pollinate their fields, he said.
"As long as the farmer promises what the farmer can control" they will not be in danger of lawsuits, said Kershen, who grew up on a Texas farm.
He also doubts there is much of a market for non-GMO produce, he said.
"Well, he is from Texas," a committee member quipped.
Testing for GMO products by wholesale buyers is common, said Ben Davis of Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
"Farmers and processors are getting their products rejected," he said.
But the bill and the debate avoids the real issue — whether GMO crops are safe for consumption and the environment some have said.
"I don't think in the final analysis we will be able to skirt that issue," said State Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr.
Courts might not uphold the bill redirecting liability for GMO seeds unless the Legislature can determine that such crops have some risk, he said.
For instance, restrictions on pesticides have been upheld because of their inherent danger if the products are misused, but the courts have not upheld a Vermont law requiring the labeling of milk from cows that have been given synthetic hormones, Kerr said.
Kerr added that he will not be sure whether the bill is a good one until he hears more testimony on the issue.
The Senate passed a measure limiting farmer's liability from the use of genetically modified seeds last year and seems likely to again. This year's Senate bill has 17 co-sponsors. The question supporters of the legislation are asking themselves now is whether the House, which did not pass the measure last year, will this time.
Contact Louis Porter at email@example.com.
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