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House debates liability of genetically modified seed makers

MONTPELIER, Vt. --Manufacturers of genetically engineered seeds could be liable for damages if their products drift into the fields of neighboring farmers who don't want them under a bill that won approval Tuesday in the Vermont House.

The proposal could put Vermont at the forefront of a heated national debate about the wisdom of using the seeds and plants, which can be scientifically modified to resist pests or disease. Some farmers and consumers don't want such technology being used on their food. But others say it's an important way to keep food economical and to control the use of pesticides on farm fields.

That divide was starkly illustrated in the Statehouse. Supporters and opponents thronged the House chamber to witness the debate on a compromise version of the bill that's been debated in the Legislature for the past year and a half.

"As an organic farmer, my job is to make sure I'm producing a crop that's free of genetically modified (organisms)," said Leceister dairy farmer Annie Claghorn after the House voted 77-63 in favor of the bill.

But opponents were out in equal force to demonstrate to Gov. Jim Douglas, who has made pretty clear he'll veto the bill if it wins Senate approval, that they'll back him.

"We're here to show the governor he has the vote when, hopefully, he vetoes it," said St. Albans dairy farmer Mitch Montagne, standing outside the governor's office after the vote.

The issue in the legislation is fairly arcane. The bill was designed to give farmers who don't want to use modified seeds a forum to address their grievances if pollen from modified plants drift into their crops.

The bill would treat farmers as consumers and would allow them to sue a seed manufacturer, claiming the so-called drift into his or her field was a private nuisance. Such a claim could only be made if the farmer could prove that his or her total loss exceeded $3,500.

"This is a bill to protect all farmers, especially those who use genetically modified seeds," said Rep. Dexter Randall, P-Troy, the primary sponsor of the bill and a dairy farmer.

He and others said it was an attempt to give farmers a greater say over their businesses. Although manufacturers retain ownership of the genetically engineered seeds and plants and only lease them to farmers, the companies have been insulated from damage claims.

The new bill would protect a farmer using the genetically engineered seeds, making manufacturers liable for damages. Supporters said that's why they believed the bill would be good for both conventional farmers and organic farmers, who are among the leaders in opposing the use of the genetically altered seeds.

"This bill is not about dividing these farmers," said Rep. Rosemary McLaughlin, D-Royalton. "(It) is about protecting these two types of farmers."

Rep. William Johnson, R-Canaan, also a dairy farmer, argued that all the bill would do was erroneously call into question the safety of genetically modified organisms. "It's based on a false premise," he said. "It's based on the premise that there's something wrong with genetically engineered seeds or biotechnology."

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