Altered seeds more common than previously thought

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(Host) Agriculture officials were surprised to discover that almost half the seeds sold to Vermont farm supply dealers are genetically modified. The technology is controversial, and there’s legislation in the Statehouse that requires the labeling of gene-altered seeds. The bill has cleared the Senate, but it faces opposition from the Douglas administration.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Previously, state officials believed that just 10% of the seeds sold here were genetically modified. But when they began collecting the data, they learned the figure was much higher. At a meeting in the Statehouse, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Kerr looked over the numbers:

(Kerr) “What this says is that of the total pounds of seed sold to dealers in the state in 2002, 44% are genetically modified in some fashion. Yeah, that’s a high percentage.”

(Dillon) Most of the seed was for corn fed to dairy cows. The corn is genetically altered to be resistant to herbicide. Or it’s been modified with genes from bug-killing bacteria.

The Senate has passed a bill that requires mandatory labeling of the genetically modified seeds. The legislation also says companies have to report how much of the seed they sell in Vermont.

Kerr prefers to have biotechnology companies report their sales figures voluntarily. He says this strategy would avoid what he predicts will be a legislative train wreck over the mandatory reporting and labeling bill.

(Kerr) “Going the train wreck route not only denies the goal, but it probably convinces the companies that they can come in and tough this thing out. I don’t want that to happen, and that’s why I’ve proposed the voluntary approach.”

(Dillon) But supporters of the bill question whether companies will continue to voluntarily share their sales data. Representative David Zuckerman is an organic farmer from Burlington.

(Zuckerman) “The vast majority of the people out there, frankly, don’t trust these seed companies. These seed companies have fought tooth and nail against this for years. They’re only now coming up and saying, ‘we’ll do it voluntarily’ because their feet are to the fire and ultimately in the long run it should be in statute. Three years from now, will it still be voluntary, will they still do it? I don’t think so.”

(Dillon) Zuckerman says farmers and consumers have a right to know what kind of seeds they buy, and how much of the gene-altered seeds are sold here. Advocates of the biotechnology say the seeds increase production and in some cases allow the farmers to use less pesticides. But Zuckerman says one concern is that organic crops could be pollinated by genetically modified varieties. If that happens, he says the organic growers could lose their certification and their market.

The seed bill is now in the House, but House Speaker Walter Freed says it’s not a top priority for this legislative session.

For Vermont Pubic Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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