GENET archive


6-Regulation: GMO label law not enforced in Vermont (USA)

                                 PART I
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TITLE:  Advocates: GMO label law not enforced
SOURCE: The Times-Argus, USA, by J.C. Myers
DATE:   02  Feb 2006

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Advocates: GMO label law not enforced

Advocates and some legislators who want clear labeling of genetically
engineered seeds claim the state is not adhering to the intent of a
labeling law passed by the Legislature in 2004.

The state Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets has required no
changes in labeling since the law went into effect, contending that
existing language describing seed traits is enough to let farmers know
when they are buying genetically modified products.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group is using petitions and
correspondence with agency Secretary Stephen Kerr to pressure him to
initiate a legislative rulemaking process. This is an administrative
procedure in which state agencies can spell out more clearly the
boundaries and applications of a statute.

Kerr says his agency has followed both the letter and the intent of the
labeling law, Act 97. The law requires that consumers be provided with
information about genetically engineered materials. The law defines a
genetically engineered seed or plant part as one that has been produced
using a variety of methods, including cell fusion and recombinant DNA
technology that influences its growth and development in ways that are
"not possible under natural conditions or processes."

Under the legislation, labeling must specify the identity and traits of
the genetically engineered material, requirements for handling, contact
point for further information, name and addresses of the manufacturer
and the distributor of the materials.

Kerr said that current labeling practices meet those criteria. The law
"does not require additional labels; therefore we have not required
them," he said.

This position is a change from Kerr's earlier stance. In a 2004 e-mail
to advocates, which was quoted in the Rutland Herald and The Times
Argus, Kerr wrote that he would require companies that sell genetically
engineered seeds in Vermont to include "a plain English disclosure" that
"these seeds have been genetically engineered."

Some legislators say that while the agency may be meeting the letter of
the law, it is not remaining true to the agreements made about how it
would be carried out. Rep. David Zuckerman, a Burlington Progressive who
is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said "the secretary has
chosen not to follow the intent of the law. He has chosen to be as
lenient as possible to the (genetic engineering) industry."

Kerr contends that the "technology-use contracts" that farmers sign to
buy the seeds constitute the "labeling" that is required under the law.
Kerr said there's a key distinction between the words "label" and "labeling."

"A requirement for a 'label' means a tag on every unit you sell.
'Labeling' means you provide information about your product," he said.

Kerr said that "farmers are professionals, and they are more than
educated to know what they are buying. There is an agreement they have
to sign that they don't have to sign for any other seeds."The attorney
general's office has reviewed the issue and agreed. Assistant Attorney
General Michael Duane, who does legal work for the agency, said the
technology-use contracts that farmers sign to buy the seeds "very
clearly meet the seven elements required under the statute - they meet
the letter of the law."

But Drew Hudson, field director for the Vermont Public Interest Group,
disagrees. "To implement the law you need a clear label - just
describing the seeds traits is not enough. If it doesn't say
'genetically engineered' it doesn't mean 'genetically engineered,'" he said.

Hudson said VPIRG wants the agency to enter into rulemaking not only to
improve the current labeling practices for commercial seeds, but because
"hundreds of varieties" of genetically engineered vegetable seeds for
the home gardener are already under development.

"Monsanto, one of the largest manufacturers of genetically engineered
products has now purchased Seminis, a garden seed producer," said
Hudson. He says that genetically engineered garden seeds will soon be on
the market and they should be labeled. "The regulatory rules should lead
the market and protect the consumer," he said.

Kerr, who said that a rulemaking process is unnecessary for the labeling
of commercial farm products, agreed that rulemaking will be necessary
when genetically engineered products become available to the home
gardener. "We may have to use symbols," he said. "It will change with
home gardeners."

Kerr said that during the drafting of the labeling bill, the legislators
intended that labels that specifically said "genetically engineered"
would not be required.

However, Sen. Sara Kittell, D-Franklin, chairwoman of the Senate
Agriculture Committee, and Zuckerman both remembered differently that
the intent of the law was that some placard or sign should indicate to
the commercial farmer that the seed is a genetically engineered product.

Duane, the assistant attorney general, said that if legislators are not
satisfied that the law they wrote meets their intent, they can draft new
language. But he added that caution should be exercised in drafting such
language because some "plant incorporated protectants" are considered
pesticides, and their labeling is regulated by the Environmental
Protection Agency.

One of the reasons Kerr cited for not requiring labels is that asking
manufacturers to change their tags for every unit would be onerous, and
may violate interstate commerce statutes.

Zuckerman called that a red herring.

"We were asking them to use some sort of clear placard to indicate that
the products on display are genetically engineered products," he said
"and not to label every bag. It's not like there are so many seed
dealers in Vermont so as to make that onerous."

Zuckerman, who is himself an organic farmer, said that it is possible
without clear and specific labeling for farmers to be provided with a
genetically engineered seed and not know what they are getting. He says
that farmers only sign a single document and get multiple deliveries of
seed and in some cases, "you open a bag and it's considered the same as
signing a contract."

Seed dealer Jacob Bourdeau of Sheldon disagreed.

"When a farmer orders the GM seeds he signs an agreement," he said.
Bourdeau is confident that any competent farmer or feed store worker
could tell what seed they are delivering or planting, and would know if
it was a genetically engineered seed just by reading the variety on the
bag's label. He admitted accidents could happen, but said the farmer
would likely be responsible for any mix-up. "Sure, I could put diesel
fuel in my car, but whose fault would that be?" he asked.

Zuckerman believes that the legislators were manipulated by genetic
engineering industry lobbyists. "Frankly, we were naïve," he said. "The
other side knew well they could get around the language and do nothing.
It's extremely frustrating when you negotiate in good faith, and the
secretary interprets the law in a way that favors the industry."

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

TITLE:  Farmer Protection Act misrepresented
SOURCE: The Times-Argus, USA, letter by Rick Scharf
DATE:   03 Feb 2006

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Farmer Protection Act misrepresented

Last April, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the Farmer Protection Act
(FPA) by a vote of 26-1. The House removed strict liability from the
Senate version and instead passed a severely weakened version of the bill.

The protection that farmers seek comes at a price for Monsanto and the
other multinational seed manufacturers. As a result, the debate over the
FPA has been clouded by industry spin and misrepresentation. To be
clear, the FPA makes no statement for or against the use of genetically
modified seed. Instead, it discusses who should assume the liability for
economic damage that will inevitably be caused when these genetically
modified seeds contaminate neighboring fields.

Liability caused by a product most commonly rests with those who own the
product. It is important to recognize in this case, that farmers who use
genetically modified seed do not actually own the seed. Instead, they
sign a use agreement that allows them to lease the technology but the
manufacturer retains ownership of the seed. Under current law, Vermont's
family farmers are made to accept all liability for damage caused by
seeds that they don't even own.

Proponents of the House version claim that farmers are already protected
as consumers. In actuality, neither farmer is protected in a
contamination scenario. The farmer who has been harmed has done no
business with Monsanto (and is therefore not a consumer) and the farmer
who leased the seed will have no recourse to the company while being
sued. Without the strict liability provision, the only party that can
claim any protection is the seed manufacturer.

Of the six-member conference committee formed to negotiate the final
version of the bill, only Representatives Gervais and Jewitt stand
opposed to strict liability. I call on them to join their House and
Senate colleagues in order to give all Vermont farmers the protection
that they deserve.

Rick Scharf

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

TITLE:  Strict liability provision essential part of GE bill
SOURCE: The Times-Argus, USA, letter by Jill Kopel
DATE:   05 Feb 2006

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Strict liability provision essential part of GE bill

I strongly urge the conference committee of the Vermont House and Senate
to include strict liability in the bill they propose. The intention of
this liability provision is solely to protect all farmers.

The Senate version, passed almost unanimously, contains strict liability
for the manufacturers of genetically engineered seed, while the House
version defines farmers as consumers. Under the House version, in order
to recover damages, a contaminated farmer will still have to sue his neighbor.

As an organic farmer, if my crops become contaminated, I stand at risk
to lose my markets and my income. If that should happen, I wouldn't want
to sue my neighbor who simply chose to use the GE technologies, I would
want recourse with the companies that manufacture and profit from them.
The only way to recover damages from the manufacturer under the House
version is to prove that the genetically engineered seed is "defective
by design" -- that is, it did not perform as intended. Since seeds are
designed to reproduce, I think that proving this defect would be very
challenging for one individual against a likely fleet of lawyers.

The farmers who choose to grow genetically engineered seed don't own the
seed technology and should not be held liable. The strict liability
provision places the liability of economic damages from contamination of
GE crops on the manufacturers, where it belongs. Consumer law protects
against products, not cross-pollination. If these companies are
confident enough to promote their technology as safe and effective,
there should be no problem holding them accountable if the product
proves otherwise.

The bill, S.18, is now in conference committee, and the legislators have
one more chance to stand with Vermont's family farmers.

Jill Kopel
New Leaf Organics

European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
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