Biotech wheat liability measure defeated

BISMARCK, N.D., February 15, 2005,DALE WETZEL Associated Press/ Biotechnology supporters overrode questions in the state Senate about the proper share of legal liability for biotech wheat seed developers, defeating a bill that they believed would stifle innovation.

The legislation "would be harmful to the biotech industry," said Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr. "It would ... seriously hurt North Dakota's chances for creating a climate for research and development."

Opponents of biotech wheat fear its introduction in North Dakota would ruin the state's overseas export markets in Japan and Europe, where many consumers are skeptical about the benefits of genetic modification of food.

They supported legislation, introduced by Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, that would require biotech seed developers to bear much of the legal responsibility if their crop spread to fields or grain bins where it wasn't wanted.

Senators defeated the legislation, 30-14, on Monday. "If this bill were to pass, this puts us on an island that we can't afford to be on," said Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo. "We would be the only state in the United States to have this."

Farmers who use biotech seed are usually required to sign contracts in which they assume responsibility for damage the seed may cause to neighboring fields. Triplett said her bill was intended to give farmers more leverage in those agreements.

"I see this as a protection for all of the farmers in our state, both those who want to grow this kind of wheat, and those who do not," Triplett said. "It should not be perceived as a death knell for research, or for the introduction of new products, but rather a realistic notion that if the genie gets out of the bag, that it's out of the bag forever."

Sen. Bill Bowman, R-Bowman, said he doubted the legislation would hamper crop research.

"If it helps increase the bottom line to farmers, we want them," Bowman said. "But when it gets down to the liability issue, if the company knows that this has the potential to do damage, and then doesn't want to have any liability dealing with it, I think we have to hold them accountable."

Triplett's bill got its first Senate hearing only four days ago, and Monday's Senate debate on the legislation had an anti-climactic feel, two years after it sparked some of the Legislature's most impassioned arguments about technology and its role in agriculture.

Since the 2003 session, Monsanto Co., a St. Louis company that had been developing a biotech variety of hard red spring wheat, stopped its work and ordered its North Dakota State University research plots destroyed.

The seed was designed to withstand Monsanto's Roundup weed killer, and the company had been closest to commercial plantings.

"All planned releases for the commercialization of biotech wheat have been tabled for nearly over a year now," Erbele said. "There are no forecasts for its release any time soon. It's an issue, essentially, that doesn't exist at this time."

Triplett said questions about the potential impact of biotech wheat, and who should bear responsibility if something went wrong, were still relevant.

Bowman agreed. "This isn't going to go away," he said. "Once this product's introduced, once your neighbor gets sued by your neighbor ... they're going to run right back into (the Legislature) and say, 'What are you going to do about it?'"

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