By JOHN FLOWERS
MONTPELIER â€” The Vermont House on Tuesday voted 77-63 in favor of a bill that would allow organic farmers to seek damages from the manufacturers of genetically modified seeds, if those products taint their crops through pollen drift or some other accidental event.
The controversial measure is far from a done deal, however. It now requires Senate approval, after which it would require the signature of Vermont Gov. James Douglas, a Middlebury Republican.
Douglas administration spokesman Jason Gibbs minced no words on Wednesday when asked whether the governor would support the House-passed measure.
â€œNo,â€? he said. â€œ(Douglas) does not think itâ€™s necessary. He thinks (the bill) pits farmer against farmer, and neighbor against neighbor.â€?
The House and Senate have been working throughout the session on legislation to regulate the sale of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. An earlier Senate-passed bill would have made manufacturers of genetically modified seeds strictly liable for damages incurred by organic farmers whose crops become tainted by such seeds.
Earlier this session, the House passed a bill that did not include a strict liability provision.
While organic farmers have lobbied for the option of pursuing seed manufacturers for damages, conventional farmers have opposed the GMO legislation. They have argued, among other things, that the new law could prompt manufacturers to stop selling genetically modified seeds in Vermont. Those seeds have enabled farmers to raise crops that are less vulnerable to certain disease and insects.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, chaired the conference committee that reconciled the House and Senate versions of GMO legislation.
He called the bill passed by the House on Tuesday â€œa compromise.â€? The bill does not extend liability to farmers who use genetically modified seeds, but allows organic farmers to take legal action against manufacturers if they can prove losses in excess of $3,500 after mitigation.
Jewett said the conference committee spent a lot of time focusing on the legal definition of a â€œnuisanceâ€? in the context of the GMO debate. The committee then sorted out ways aggrieved farmers could legitimately maintain the option of filing lawsuits against GMO seed manufacturers.
Jewett said the considerable testimony he has heard has left him confident that manufacturers will not stop selling genetically modified seeds to farmers that want the product.
He hopes the controversy can be laid to rest.
â€œThere has been too much division in this debate,â€? Jewett said.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, is concerned the GMO law may create a â€œcultural divideâ€? between conventional farmers and organic farmers.
â€œWe need to find ways to work out our issues without necessarily pitting one farmer against another,â€? said Smith, a longtime farmer and member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Smith pointed to what he believes are other flaws in the House-passed GMO legislation that:
â€¢ Restricts a seed manufacturerâ€™s rights of defense from plaintiffs claiming contamination from pollen drift.
Under the proposed law, manufacturers cannot argue that GMO crops are â€œin common or general use in the geographic region in which the lands on which the nuisance occurs are located.â€? Companies also cannot argue that it was the organic farmerâ€™s responsibility to establish buffer zones to protect against pollen drift.
â€¢ Diminishes, in some farmersâ€™ eyes, protections gained by the agricultural industry through the recently enacted â€œright to farmâ€? law.
â€¢ Provides no statute of limitations on liability that could be incurred by seed manufacturers.
â€œIf a seed company stopped producing one of these seeds, and a problem shows up five years later, itâ€™s still their responsibility,â€? Smith said.
The Addison County Farm Bureau (ACFB) and Vermont Farm Bureau have already taken positions against the GMO legislation, according to ACFB Secretary Andrea Ochs, an Orwell orchardist.
â€œThe ACFB feels the same way as the state farm bureau â€” this is a bill that is not needed,â€? Ochs said.
â€œWe are potentially going to restrict technology for conventional farmers who believe they need this technology,â€? she added.
The countyâ€™s organic farmers appear content with the new legislation.
â€œObviously, weâ€™re pleased itâ€™s been passed, and are hopeful that Gov. Douglas will understand the purpose â€” to make farmers less vulnerable to lawsuits from seed manufacturers, and from farmer-against-farmerâ€? lawsuits, said Annie Claghorn of the Taconic End Farm in Leicester.