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6-Regulation: GMO liability bills divide lawmakers in Vermont (USA)

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TITLE:  GMO liability bills divide lawmakers
SOURCE: Bennington Banner, USA, by Patrick McArdle
DATE:   20 Mar 2006

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GMO liability bills divide lawmakers

BENNINGTON -- Bennington County legislators are as divided over a bill
dealing with liability for genetically-modified seeds as they feel their
constituents are.

At issue are measures before the Legislature that would make
manufacturers of genetically-modified organisms financially responsible
if their products spread beyond the farms where they are planted and
reach land used by organic farmers.

Democratic lawmakers Sen. Dick Sears and Rep. William Botzow of Pownal
are on opposite sides of the debate. Meanwhile, Rep. Patti Komline, R-
Dorset, favors the Senate's approach.

"There's a lot of controversy over this, a lot of people don't agree,"
Sears said. "There's a lot of strong opinions."

Sears said he has heard from farmers in Shaftsbury and Pownal and an
agricultural supply store in Manchester. There is little common ground
among them, he said.

Similarly, the Senate and House have their preferred ways of dealing with
the issue. The Senate bill calls for strict liability on the part of the
manufacturer of GMOs.

The House bill provides a number of different remedies for the organic
farmer but does not hold the manufacturer wholly responsible.

A conference committee was called for by members of the House and Senate
but it failed to reach a compromise.

Botzow said farmers need a mechanism to address their losses if the seed
manufacturer is at fault. He believes in offering at least three paths of
liability: product, strict and nuisance.

Sears and Komline favor strict liability, meaning manufacturers would pay
if an organic field was contaminated with GMOs even if they were not
directly responsible. Komline compared the situation to a farmer who owns
a steer that breaks through a fence and damages another person's
property. The owner of the steer would be liable, so she believes the
manufacturer should be liable, whether they were responsible for the
seeds spreading or not.

Sears said he wanted to protect farmers.

"The manufacturer under current contract laws requires that person (who
uses GMOs) to hold liability. We didn't think that was fair. That's why
we called it the Farmer Protection Bill," he said.

Second thoughts

Komline said she hadn't changed her position, but some aspects have given
her second thoughts. For instance, strict liability makes it easy for an
organic farmer to corrupt his or her own crops and then sue the manufacturer.

Komline also said organic farmers seemed very single-minded and didn't
seem to understand that even the Senate version of the bill required them
to go to court to seek a remedy.

"I have a big concern for the non-GMO farmer but some people can't see
the other side. They're so convinced the genetically-modified seeds are
bad for us and there's no proof of that. So I'm a little concerned with
the lack of perspective," she said.

Botzow agreed that the bill didn't tackle the larger issues some are
concerned with.

"What's important to remember is that this isn't about whether farming
with GMOs is bad or not, this is about, if a farmer is damaged, how do
you make that farmer whole. What recourse does the farmer have in the
face of a large, international corporation," he said.

Choose the venue

Both the House and the Senate bills offer to let the farmer choose the
venue for a lawsuit. Under current law, a seed manufacturer could insist
a lawsuit be tried in an out-of-state court under that state's laws. That
can make it difficult for a small farmer to pursue litigation.

The legislators also agree that a bill is necessary. Gov. James Douglas,
however, believes existing case law is enough to protect farmers,
although he said he was prepared to sign the House version of the bill.

The future of the bill is up in the air. Botzow said the House had
accepted the report of the first conference committee which is the first
step toward creating a second conference committee. Botzow believes it's
important the issue not be lost in the shuffle of other legislation.

"We need good, fair, predictable outcomes for the entire agricultural
industry, for all our farmers. We need our farmers united on any of the
issues they face. Farmers have had a hard time of it," he said.

According to Rural Vermont, a nonprofit advocacy group opposed to
corporate agriculture, (T)here has been widespread contamination of non-
GMO corn, soy, canola and cotton seed in the U.S. from pollen drift."
Rural Vermont claims GMOs have been allowed onto the market without
government safety testing.

European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
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