Senate passes GMO liability bill
MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate on Tuesday gave nearly unanimous approval to a bill designed to make seed manufacturers liable for the impacts of genetically modified crops.
As many as a dozen senators were expected to oppose the bill, but the final vote was 26-1. Sen. Wendy Wilton, R-Rutland, voted against final passage.
But the political wrangling over the bill, which now goes to the House, is far from over and could end in a veto by Gov. James Douglas.
And a portion of the bill which defines the extent to which manufacturers of genetically modified seeds are liable for potential harm remains a sticking point.
Two amendments designed to strengthen the protection afforded to farmers were added to the bill almost without debate.
But the amendment which caused the most consternation and discussion in the Statehouse wasn't even offered on the floor in the end.
That change, which hung on a single word, would have removed the "strict liability" provision of the proposed legislation.
Under strict liability a seed manufacturer would not have to be proven at fault before they could be held liable for potential damages from pollen drift of genetically modified crops.
The change supported by Wilton, Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, and Sen. Harold Giard, D-Addison, who also proposed the other two amendments, would have changed the wording of the bill from "is liable" to "may be liable"."The dog in this bill is strict liability," said Starr, who vowed to work to change the language in the bill in the House, where he used to be a state representative. Strict liability is "killing a fly with a baseball bat," he said.
"I thought long and hard about what I was going to do," she said. "It's the strict liability provision that is most damaging."
If strict liability remains in the bill, Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr said he will recommend to Douglas that he veto the bill.
"The governor shares the concerns that have been articulated by Secretary Kerr," said Douglas spokesman Jason Gibbs. "The governor is hopeful we will be able to reach a compromise before the bill arrives on his desk."
Strict liability is typically used with chemicals and products which are known to be abnormally dangerous, Kerr said, and that claim has not even been discussed this year during the debate over the genetically modified seed bill.
Pesticides, which are known to be dangerous, are not governed under strict liability, he said.
Amy Shollenberger, policy director for Rural Vermont, said strict liability was the only way to ensure that seed manufactures, not farmers, were liable for the impact of genetically modified crops.
"It's the only way to get it off their backs and establish a clear course of action," she said.
"The fundamental part of the strict liability is to have the responsibility lie where it belongs," said Senate President Pro Tem Peter Welch, D-Windsor.
Seed manufacturers who will reportedly not sell their products in Vermont if the bill passes may have been responsible for the nearly unanimous vote, senators said.
"Some of the manufacturers made threats that undermined their arguments," Welch said.
Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, was even more direct.
"I don't take well to threats from international companies that don't want to come into the state and compete on a level playing field," he said. "It's not acceptable."
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