|Biotech battle flares in state - "It was Monsanto then, and it is Monsanto again" (20/3/2004)|
EXCERPT: [The battle is a repeat of that over Monsanto's genetically engineered rBGH - banned in every developed country in the world apart from the US where it was forced through]
"It was Monsanto then, and it is Monsanto again," Rep. Robert Starr said from the House Agriculture Committee room on Friday. Monsanto... has had its representatives in Montpelier lobbying against the state's attempts to regulate the seeds and crops.
"They brought in their big guns and worked over the legislators in the conference hearings. It's the same players. They weren't only talking in the hallways or the cafeteria like most of the lobbyists. That really bothered me. I've never witnessed anything like that in Vermont" .
Biotech battle flares in state
BRATTLEBORO -- A decade ago, battles raged in Montpelier over the use of [genetically engineered] growth hormones in the state's dairy herds.
That's the last time Rep. Robert Starr, D-Orleans, remembers such rancor in the usually quiet House Agriculture Committee.
Now the ongoing debate over the introduction and labeling of genetically engineered seeds have pitted farmer against farmer. Starr, who has served in the Legislature for more than a quarter-century, sees similarities in the two issues.
"It was Monsanto then, and it is Monsanto again," Starr said from the House Agriculture Committee room on Friday.
Monsanto, the agricultural biotech company that makes most of the genetically engineered seeds in the country, has had its representatives in Montpelier lobbying against the state's attempts to regulate the seeds and crops.
"They brought in their big guns and worked over the legislators in the conference hearings. It's the same players. They weren't only talking in the hallways or the cafeteria like most of the lobbyists. That really bothered me. I've never witnessed anything like that in Vermont," Starr said.
On Feb. 26, hearings on genetically modified organisms collapsed into an ugly shouting match, according to Institute for Social Ecology member Brian Tokar, who was there to testify.
Tokar said House Agriculture Committee chairwoman Ruth Towne, R-Washington, tried to keep more than 100 Vermonters out of the small room and refused to move to a larger room to accommodate the crowd.
Then, Tokar said, last week Towne tried to prevent two cameramen from taping the proceedings. The chairwoman lost both battles, he said.
Rep. Starr called the atmosphere in the room those days "bizarre."
Back when the House Agriculture Committee was debating the bovine growth hormone issue, Starr said he and his supporters wanted to preserve Vermont's distinction for making wholesome products.
The GMO debate, Starr said, is centered around the same issues.
"The demand would be higher and people would pay a premium if they could be assured that Vermont cows were not fed GE corn," said Starr. "Our farmers would be in a better position than other farmers who use (GE seeds)."
The Legislature is working on three bills concerning GMOs.
* The Right to Know Bill (S.182): defines genetically engineered seeds and requires that they are labeled as such;
* A Time-Out on GMOs Bill (S.162): calls for a two-year time-out on the planting of GE crops while their impact on agriculture and the environment is investigated;
* The Farmer Protection Act (S.164): holds biotech companies liable for unintended contamination, and protects Vermont farmers from patent infringement suits.
On Tuesday, the Senate voted unanimously in favor of the Farmer Protection Act. The bill will be assigned to a House committee next week, and could end up on the governor's desk.
The Right to Know Bill passed the Senate last year, and is sitting in the Natural Resources committee.
A number of Vermont lawmakers said this week that the Moratorium Bill has little chance of passing this year.
Gov. James Douglas was unwilling to say whether he would sign any of the bills into law. He said Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr has been working on the issue, and Douglas said he will rely on the agency's findings to help him decide.
"I don't know about the legal issues and I would not want to hold out any sense of false hope for Vermont farmers," Douglas said about the seed liability bill.
The agency issued a set of "best practices" last summer that calls for co-existence between farmers who grow GE crops and other crops. These practices include timing the plantings, setting up buffer zones to prevent pollen drift, and talking to neighbors to find out what they are planting.
Douglas said this might be the only way to address all points of view on the issue.
"There are strong feelings on both sides, and I hope we can continue to have a civil and respectful dialogue," Douglas said. "Many farmers want the option to stabilize their crops and we need to respect that."
Kerr was unavailable for comment.
At the center of the issue is a farmer's right to use products that have been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Vermont Farm Bureau, with more than 4,000 members, is a strong voice in Montpelier on farmers' issues.
The bureau opposes all of the GE bills and advocates for the farmers' right to use the products.
Fourteen county sections make up the Farm Bureau. Art Menut, a lobbyist for the organization, said a bureau vote in November showed the members were overwhelmingly in support of the use of GE seeds, though he said some of the county representatives support the Senate bills.
He said the Windham County section of the bureau would like to see a time-out on the use of the GE seeds.
"Farmers as a whole have a lot of credibility. The people who work at (Vermont Public Interest Research Group) do not make their money from farming. People look to us for guidance," Menut said. "This policy came from the farmers."
Addressing the arguments in favor of the pending bills, Menut discounted them one at a time.
"I know there is a lot of concern in this state, but I just don't think people care in other parts of the country. If people were willing to pay more for a clean product they would, but I don't see it. People buy milk for the price. The FDA says these seeds are not any different," Menut said. "I don't think consumers care that much."
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said she understands the farmer's perspective. She grew up on a farm in the Midwest, she said, and with milk prices hitting historic lows there is a feeling of desperation on Vermont farms.
"The manufacturers promise a higher yield, and farmers feel like they need to have everything at their disposal to compete," said White, who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee. "They feel that if we take this away we are taking away another tool for them to use. They are scared. They see their livelihoods threatened."
White was highly critical of Kerr and the Agency of Agriculture. She said the agency should be looking at this issue with a longer range perspective, and supporting farmers in finding other ways to make it through tough times.
"They are not approaching this issue from an objective and educational point of view," White said. "We are not seeing leadership from the Agency of Agriculture on this."
White introduced the seed labeling bill last year. She said a moratorium would have the most impact, and without halting the planting of GE seeds farmers run the risk of contaminating crops, as well as threatening the environment.
But last week's Senate vote on the liability bill was an important first step.
"That vote was huge," White said. "Once you start moving and thinking about an issue it is easier to go to the next step. Farmers are thinking about the issue and that, in itself, is valuable. I am not discouraged where we are. We are making strides."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at [email protected]