Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture has decided to require companies that sell genetically engineered seeds in Vermont to include “a plain English disclosure” on labels that includes the phrase, “these seeds have been genetically engineered.”
In a clarification of an earlier decision on the closely-watched issue, Steve Kerr also will require companies to specify what traits have been conferred through biotechnology.
Faced with stubborn seed companies and concerned legislators and activists, Kerr spelled out his thoughts in an e-mail to advocates on how he expects seed companies to comply with a new state law that requires the labeling of all genetically engineered seeds sold in Vermont.
The law, known as Act 97, is the first of its kind in the United States. It went into effect on Oct. 1 without rules and without any guidance from the Agency of Agriculture about how labels of genetically engineered seed should be worded to satisfy the law. Kerr said at the time that he felt the law was “very clear” without rules and that he wanted to give companies some flexibility in how they complied.
But shortly thereafter, St. Louis, Mo.-based Monsanto Corp. and Indianapolis, Ind.-based Dow AgroSciences, two major biotech companies that sell genetically engineered seeds in Vermont, indicated publicly that they did not intend to use the words, “genetically engineered” on their seed labels next year.
That raised eyebrows among some legislators and activists, including Ben Davis, Environmental Advocate at the Vermont Public Interest Group.
“It seemed like the industry was thumbing its nose at the law,” said Davis, who then asked Kerr to clarify the agency’s position on labeling. Kerr provided that last week.
In an interview Sunday, Kerr said that his agency will send a letter to biotech seed companies in the next few days with instructions for compliance. Kerr added, “I hope they are going to pay attention to the law because we are dead serious about it.”
Kerr said he found it necessary to specify language for the labels after seed company representatives cancelled a meeting with him on the subject, which was slated for Nov. 1. “They didn’t want to come in on the schedule I suggested,” he said. “I wanted to make sure labels are properly done this year. I don’t want any excuses from (seed companies) that we didn’t give them enough time.”
Some advocates for the law saw Kerr’s actions in a different light.
“This is the administration basically coming on board to what the law was intended to do in the first place,” Davis said. He added that Kerr’s labeling instructions as outlined in the e-mail were “acceptable to the advocates” of the law.
Dave Zuckerman, P-Burlington, the law’s original lead sponsor in the House, said, “The administration is doing what it knows it should do. I’m glad that they finally put it in writing so we can move on.”
Zuckerman said he had cussed the issue with Kerr several times in recent weeks after hearing about biotech companies’ plans to “skirt the law.” He said his goal was to make certain that “consumers have the information they want to make decisions for themselves.”
Kerr defended his decision not to specify labeling language earlier by saying that he wanted to see what seed companies would propose on their own.
“It seemed to me to be the smart and decent thing to do,” he said. “I didn’t want to tip my hand at that point.” But, he insisted, “the genetically engineered part (of the labeling) was never negotiable.”
Kerr said he also wants to be careful in his actions not to scare biotech companies away from Vermont entirely.
“I don’t want these companies to decide that Vermont, or its Secretary of Agriculture, is so unreasonable that they’re just going to walk away from a small market,” he said. “We have a lot of farmers who rely on these (genetically engineered) traits. I have as much of an obligation to them as I do to organic farmers who don’t want to use these things.”
Zuckerman said he doubts Act 97 could drive biotech companies from the state. “That would be a major capitulation on their part,” he said, “and they don’t want that anywhere in this country — to have been beaten, or pushed out by consumers.”
After Kerr’s letter goes out to seed companies this week, the attention of many interested parties in Vermont and beyond will turn to biotech seed companies, to see how they respond. Kerr says he can sense the passions on both sides of the issue.
“I take this as quite a responsibility,” he said. “It’s the first public disclosure law dealing with this technology. We better be careful and do it right, because I hope and suspect other states will copy what we’ve done.” Andrew Barker, © 2004 Times Argus