Senate votes to hold makers of modified seeds liable
Vermont Senate Votes to Hold Makers of GMO Seeds Liable
LOUIS PORTER / Vermont Press Bureau 6apr2005
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 passage.
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 liable."
"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.
"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."
Contact Louis Porter at email@example.com.
source: http://www.rutlandherald.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050406/NEWS/504060340/1041/LEGISLATURE 13apr2005
Press Release April 5, 2005
Contact: Amy Shollenberger, Policy Director, Rural Vermont 802-793-1114 firstname.lastname@example.org
VERMONT SENATE PASSES FARMER PROTECTION ACT
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 adopted two of the provisions that Wilton and Starr had also wanted. 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 back 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.