Vermont Senate Seeks ‘Strict Liability’ for Seed Makers of Genetically Engineered Crops

April 3, 2005

The Vermont Senate last week gave preliminary approval to a bill that would make seed manufacturers rather than farmers liable for damages from genetically modified crops.

As the measure heads for a final vote, an amendment is expected to be introduced next week that could dramatically change the bill.

The version passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and approved by the full Senate is designed to help farmers recover losses from the accidental spread of genetically modified crops, supporters say.

“The purpose is to establish some legal protection for Vermont farmers,” said Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor.

The bill applies so-called “strict liability” to seed manufacturers, making them responsible for damages their products cause even if they are found to be not at fault.

Opponents, including Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr, who said he would urge the governor to veto the bill in its current form, say strict liability is inappropriate for GMOs.

Sen. Wendy Wilton, R-Rutland, the only member of Judiciary Committee who opposed the bill, said the strict liability standard may drive manufacturers to stop selling GMO seeds in Vermont. If consumers buy seeds from other states and plant them in Vermont, they could end up being liable, she said.

“Right now I think there’s lots of problems in this bill that may result in farmers really not being protected and that’s my big concern,” Wilton said.

She plans to sponsor an amendment with two other senators that would reduce the liability requirement for manufacturers.

Supporters suggested that the bill is not about the safety of GMOs but is instead about the legal issues surrounding them.

“This is not about whether GE seeds are good or bad. It’s about lawsuits and the liability that people face,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington.

Supporters said misinformation had been circulating about the bill. The legislation does not pass judgment on the safety of GMOs or pit organic farmers against nonorganic farmers, Campbell said.

“It does not restrict the use or sale of GE seeds in Vermont,” he said.

The Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to consider the amendment this week.

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