Sign seed bill
The Legislature has passed a reasonable bill safeguarding Vermont farmers from neighbor-against-neighbor warfare over genetically modified seed. The bill would place responsibility for damage caused by the seed where it belongs — with the companies that are selling it.
Gov. James Douglas, who appears hyper-sensitive to the interests of the large chemical companies, is considering a veto of the bill.
The GMO seed bill addresses problems that arise when organic farm operations are put in jeopardy from contamination caused by the drift of pollen from genetically modified crops. It has happened already in Vermont. Farms lose their organic certification and the advantage that gives them in the market if they cannot assure customers that they practice organic methods, and many customers want no part of the GMO crops that have been developed by Monsanto and other companies.
The bill does not address the debate about the value of GMO crops. Many farmers, including farmers in Vermont, argue that seeds that have been engineered to resist certain pests allow them to use less pesticide on their land, making the crops more environmentally benign and saving money for the farmer. Already GMO seeds account for a high percentage of the corn and other crops grown in the United States. GMO seeds arouse anxiety because of what we don't know about their effects in the environment. But the bill passed by the Legislature does not address these issues.
What it does is establish that farmers who suffer contamination from GMO crops have the right to sue the company that sells the seed instead of the farmer who was using the seed. After all, the companies are patent holders of the seed and retain ownership of the seeds' DNA. Supporters of the bill argue that if the companies are going to retain ownership, they must also retain responsibility.
Opponents of the bill say that if the law passes, seed companies may withdraw from Vermont and Vermont farmers may be left without this new form of agricultural technology. But the seeds companies have not said they would do that. The suggestion that they would do so exists at the level of rumor, and it appears that Douglas has bought into it.
Douglas' real fear may be that passing a bill putting the onus on the seed companies sends an anti-business message that is not good for Vermont. Douglas ought to worry less about the interests of businesses such as Monsanto and worry more about the interests of farmers in Vermont, who are a big business in this state. These include farmers in the expanding sector of organic agriculture. The bill allows them access to Vermont courts to protect their interests if their operations are compromised.
Even farmers who use GMO seed may find comfort in the bill. They would no longer be on the hook if pollen from their crops drifts over to a neighbor's farm, ruining his crops. It is the owner of the seed who will be responsible, and that is the seed company.
Thus, the bill may foment peace, not war, among Vermont farmers, allowing farmers to experiment with GMO seeds if they like, and allowing organic farmers to flourish as well. A veto of this bill would be a thumb in the eye of Vermont farmers, conventional and organic alike.