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
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
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
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.