House approves seed protection bill

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(Host) The Vermont House has approved a bill that gives farmers greater protection if their crops are damaged by genetically engineered products.

Backers of the bill say it should help organic farmers in the event their crops are pollinated by gene-altered varieties.

But opponents argued that the legislation is unnecessary and could be a burden to conventional dairy farmers.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) As lawmakers debated the bill, dozens of farmers looked down from the House gallery.

Some, like Dick Longway of Swanton, plant crops that have been genetically altered to be more resistant to herbicides. Longway says he doesn’t use much of the GE seed. But it’s a technology he says it useful in some circumstances.

Longway worries that the legislation could lead to more lawsuits against farmers.

(Longway) “Farmers can get along with farmers. But if all of a sudden you got a neighbor from out of state or whatever and that can be a real problem the way these things are coming down the road. It just scares you that from here they’ll just be more and more of it.”

(Dillon) But proponents of the bill say it will protect farmers, both conventional and organic.

Under the legislation, farmers who suffer more than $3,500 dollars in damages could seek compensation from the seed companies.

Representative Willem Jewett is a Democrat from Ripton. He says the legislation is a workable compromise that gives farmers the legal means to sue for damages if their crops are harmed through cross pollination with gene-altered varieties.

(Jewett) “When it comes to genetic engineering, I guess some people maintain that it is a solution for agriculture. Others maintain that it is a problem for agriculture. It may be both or something in the middle. And I think that’s the balance we’re trying to present here. We know that there are segments of the agriculture economy that in their practices want to be free of genetically engineered products.”

(Dillon) On the other side of the debate was Representative William Johnson, a dairy farmer from Canaan. Johnson said the legislation tries to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. He said no organic farmer has ever lost his or her market because of cross pollination by genetically altered crops. He said the bill is aimed at a technology that is gaining wide acceptance among farmers.

(Johnson) “I believe this legislation will only serve to widen the divide in agriculture by driving a wedge between organic and conventional farmers. None of the assumptions in this bill are based on science, they’re based on fear. We embrace technology in every aspect of our lives. Not in agriculture? Why not?”

(Dillon) In the end, the House by a vote of 77 to 63 gave preliminary approval to the bill. Dairy farmer Steve Pratt of Whiting watched much of the debate, and he says he doubts the legislation will have much practical impact. He’s worried that genetic engineering will harm plant diversity. But he says the impact of the bill may be more symbolic that anything else.

(Pratt) “In my opinion, this bill in part is just to try if nothing else let the manufacturers of these seeds, let them know that Vermont is paying attention.”

(Dillon) The legislation now must go back to the Senate and to Governor Jim Douglas for his signature. The governor has indicated he may veto the bill.

For Vermont Public radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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