GENET archive


6-Regulation: Vermont (USA) Senate votes to hold makers of modified seeds liable

                                  PART I
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Senate votes to hold makers of modified seeds liable
SOURCE: Rutland Herald, USA, by Louis Porter
DATE:   6 Apr 2005

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Senate votes to hold makers of modified seeds liable

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

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 that 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

"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.

Wilton agreed.

"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 that 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, might 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."

                                  PART II
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

        Farmers Win a Major Victory over Biotech Corporations
SOURCE: Rural Vermont, USA, Press Release
DATE:   5 Apr 2005

------------------- archive: -------------------

Farmers Win a Major Victory over Biotech Corporations

MONTPELIER, VT -- With a solid 26-1 vote today, the Vermont senate passed
the Farmer Protection Act to put clear liability for genetically
engineered seeds onto the manufacturers of those seeds, taking the burden
of risk away from Vermont farmers. The bill faced several challenges in
the morning before the vote, as two senators pushed hard to limit the
liability by changing a key phrase in the bill. Senators Bobby Starr (D-
Essex/Orleans) and Wendy Wilton (R-Rutland) came to the Senate
Agriculture committee first thing in the morning with an amendment that
would have changed the language from "The manufacturer of a genetically
engineered seed or plant part IS liable to any person who has suffered
injury by the release into Vermont of a genetically engineered crop
produced from such seed or plant part." to The manufacturer of a
genetically engineered seed or plant part MAY BE liable to any person who
has suffered injury by the release into Vermont of a genetically
engineered crop produced from such seed or plant part.

The discussion on the amendment quickly disintegrated into a political
spat. Eventually, the lead sponsor of the bill, and member of the Senate
Judiciary Committee testified to the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Senator John Campbell (D-Windsor) explained that the change would shift
from a strict liability provision to a simple liability provision. "We do
not believe that simple liability offers any protection to Vermont
farmers. Therefore, we will not support the bill," he noted on behalf of
the other members of the committee, except Wilton, who sits on both the
Agriculture and Judiciary committees. Campbell went on, "We made a policy
decision in order to protect the Vermont farmer."

The Agriculture Committee adjourned before voting on the amendment, and
the Senate Judiciary instead took two of the provisions that Wilton and
Starr had wanted also. One of the provisions eliminated some of the
specific pieces of the definition of injury. This change did not truly
limit the definition because the definition still begins with "Injury
includes," which means that the definition is not limited to the
specifics listed.

The second provision added in some of the language that had been taken
out in the Judiciary Committee. This language, according to Campbell,
would protect farmers who had unknowingly come into possession of
genetically engineered traits and who were not in breach of contract from
damages associated with conversion, taking of property, and trespass.

This amendment passed unanimously (27-0) on the floor with little debate.

As the debate on final passage of the bill ensued, Starr explained that
he would not be offering his amendment to limit the liability of the
corporations, but he indicated that he thought passing the stronger
liability bill was a mistake on the part of the Vermont senate. He
claimed that the Farmer Protection Act will lead to "black marketing of
genetically engineered seeds" in the state. He went on, "This is just a
little battle. There's still plenty of fight in the war. I'll take my
fight to a different place," implying that he will be lobbying in the
Vermont House to take away the strict liability provision of the bill. In
the end, however, Starr voted for the final passage of the bill.

Campbell, responding to Starr's argument that if the bill passes, the
seed companies will "pull out" of Vermont, said, "I don't take well to
threats from international corporations when we are trying to have them
come into our state and play on a level playing field. They want to be
Goliath to our David -- without a slingshot. It's not acceptable."

Senator Jim Leddy (D-Chittenden) also spoke in support of the bill on the
senate floor, referring to Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Walls". He
quoted the passage, "Good fences make good neighbors," and went on to say
that with this issue, there are no fences, so good policy is needed.
"This bill is not to denigrate or use language that speaks to the damage
of genetically modified organisms," he said. "It is about the balance of
protection without a threat versus a threat with no protection."

The bill will now go to the House for consideration. A companion bill
that was offered in the House several weeks ago has 54 cosponsors.


Amy Shollenberger
Policy Director
Rural Vermont

                                  PART III
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Compromise on GMO bill
SOURCE: Rutland Herlad, USA
DATE:   5 Apr 2005

------------------- archive: -------------------

Compromise on GMO bill

The Vermont Senate will consider S.18 this week, also known as the Farmer
Protection Act. The bill, introduced by Sen. John Campbell under pressure
from anti-GMO activists, seeks to assign in law unlimited liability for
harm from GMO seeds or plants to the manufacturers of such seeds. GMO
seeds are genetically modified to produce a desired characteristic in the
mature plant -- such as a corn plant resistant to corn-borer insects. Such
seeds are helping farmers in Vermont by increasing yield and reducing
pesticide and herbicide use, saving money and the environment.

We will wholeheartedly support a bill that will provide liability
protection for Vermont farmers against lawsuits while not restricting
farmers from operational choices they might need to be successful.
Unfortunately, the current bill fails to meet these dual goals.

Such a bill should be simple enough, right? Nothing is ever simple when
an issue becomes politically charged by polarizing special interests -- in
this case the anti-GMO activists and the biotech industry's need to
defend itself against the cause de jour. And in the middle of this
turmoil are Vermont farmers -- traditional and non-traditional -- who have
become the substrate for the politics. We run the risk of discouraging
innovation and camaraderie in agriculture based on legislation that
appears to grant many rights to one group while limiting another.

There are two main problems with the current bill which impact farmers:

First, it contains a strict liability clause against the manufacturer
which will have the effect of forcing farmers away from using this
technology, and second, a provision to protect a farmer who inadvertently
or unknowingly plants GMO seed was removed from the bill during mark-up
before reaching the Senate floor.

Strict liability is the very highest of liability standards -- usually
reserved for hazardous situations such as possession of a dangerous wild
animal, or products proven defective like the tires on certain SUVs
causing fatal accidents a few years ago. Vermont dairy farmers have been
growing GMO feed corn and soybeans for many years without issue and the
U.S. Department of Agriculture deems GMO seed grown in Vermont as safe.
Thus, such a legal standard is hard to justify.

Interestingly, there are no lawsuits concerning GMO products in Vermont
to date. Pesticides and herbicides, the need for which is reduced in GMO
crops, are not subject to strict liability, despite the risk of use.

Bear in mind this strict liability clause isn't about the farmers -- it's
about the activists and what they want: a ban on the use of GMO seed.

The strict liability standard will force some seed companies to consider
whether or not they should do business in Vermont. Traditional dairy
farms, both in number and in acreage, still represent a vast percentage
of our farms, and they will have fewer choices in the use of seed
technology if companies pull out, and the strict liability issue just
might make them consider whether it's worth the risk to use them in these
litigious times. One company, Seedway, has informed the chairman of the
Senate Agriculture Committee that they will cease to do business in
Vermont if the bill passes in current form.

But what about the farmer who knowingly or unknowingly plants GMO seed
from a company that has ceased doing business in Vermont? Who will bear
the liability in such a case? Most likely the farmer whom this bill was
supposed to protect!

The bill can be improved greatly by adjusting the liability standard to a
level common to commercial and consumer products. An amendment offered by
us, as members of Senate Agriculture Committee specifies an opportunity
for farmers to sue for damages and economic harm as a result of GMO seed
use, thus codifying recent case law, without the extreme of strict
liability. The amended bill will strike a needed balance among interests
and will provide better protection for all our farmers, both traditional
and non-traditional, and will avoid pitting farmer against farmer.

Nearly every legislator has campaigned on a promise to support our farms
to preserve the working landscape of Vermont and continue our proud
heritage. We hope the General Assembly will remember not to abandon that
moral high ground in the face of special interests that wish to limit how
our farms can operate their businesses.

Sens. Wendy Wilton of Rutland County, Bobby Starr of Essex and Orleans
counties, and Harold Giard of Addison County are members of the Senate
Agriculture Committee.


European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
In den Steinäckern 13
D - 38116 Braunschweig

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