Vermont senate passes Farmer Protection Act
Farmers win a major victory over biotech corporations

MONTPELIER, Vermont, April 5, 2005: 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 took two of the provisions that Wilton and Starr had wanted also. 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 in 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.

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