Sales of genetically engineered seeds (GE) in Vermont jumped for the third consecutive year in 2004, according to a report released to the Legislature this week by Secretary of Agriculture Steve Kerr.
While some observers hailed the news as a sign of increasing acceptance of biotechnology among the state’s farmers, anti-GE activists said it adds urgency to the quest for legislation to minimize the potential negative impact of the crops on farmers.
The agency’s report showed that sales of genetically engineered corn rose 12 percent last year, to a total of 337,472 pounds. GE corn now makes up 19 percent of all field corn grown in Vermont, covering 17,100 acres of land. As recently as 2002, GE corn claimed only 8 percent of the state’s corn crop.
Sales of GE soybeans increased 46 percent, to 168,900 pounds, although acreage estimates for soybeans were not available at press time. Corn and soybeans are believed to be the only GE field crops currently grown in the state.
“Vermont farmers are obviously finding these products to be useful,” said Kerr. “Farmers are notoriously skeptical and notoriously frugal, so the word of mouth on these crops must be pretty positive.”
Although the state has collected data on genetically engineered seed sales since 2002, this is the first year that biotech companies have been required to report their sales to the agency. The mandatory reporting requirement is a provision of Act 97, Vermont’s first-in-the-nation law, passed in 2004, which also calls for the labeling of genetically engineered seeds.
Opponents of genetic engineering technology viewed the report with concern. “I think it means that as more GE technology is getting used by farmers, there is a greater need for the Farmer Protection Act,” said Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and a leading voice for regulation of agricultural biotechnology.
That bill, currently under consideration in the Senate, would place any liability that resulted from the growing of GE crops on the seed manufacturing company rather than on the farmer growing the GE seed, as is currently the case. An organic farmer whose plants were contaminated with pollen from a genetically engineered crop on a neighboring field, for example, could sue a biotech company in a Vermont court for any loss in the market value of the organic crop. “We need to make sure that farmers don’t end up suing farmers because of the consequences of this technology,” Zuckerman said.
The Farmer Protection Act also would shield farmers from liability for patent infringement if they unintentionally or unknowingly grew GE crops on their fields, said Amy Shollenberger, policy director for the nonprofit group Rural Vermont, which has lobbied in support of the bill. She said there are numerous cases in recent years in which Monsanto Corp. has prosecuted farmers who were unaware that the company’s GE crops were growing in their fields.
In a high-profile case that was settled by Canada’s Supreme Court in May 2004, a Saskatchewan farmer was found guilty of patent infringement, though he claimed he did not know how Monsanto’s proprietary GE canola genes had migrated into his fields.
“This is not fear-mongering. It’s documented,” Shollenberger said. “I would like to see what’s going to happen when companies are forced to assume the liability for these products.”
The liability bill, which would be the first of its kind in the nation, has already been co-sponsored by 17 of 30 senators.
Kerr is concerned about what such a law might mean. “It’s a nice piece of politics,” he said. “But I would not like to see the legislature produce a law that is so burdensome that companies started pulling their products from Vermont.”
Kerr expressed similar concerns about Act 97, the reporting and labeling law for GE seeds, when it went into effect in October 2004. Seedway, Inc., elected to pull a small number of GE vegetable seeds off the market in Vermont in November, rather than comply with the labeling requirement.
Although two companies said they were unable to meet the statutory Jan. 15 deadline, Kerr said the reporting process went smoothly. Ten seed companies reported selling GE seeds in the state, although the sales data was not broken down by company in the report. Kerr indicated that the top three companies by sales volume were St. Louis, MO-based Monsanto Corp.; Mycogen, a subsidiary of Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences; and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., a Des Moines, IA, subsidiary of DuPont.
All of the GE soybeans seeds sold in the state last year were RoundUp Ready soybeans, a variety developed by Monsanto that has been genetically altered to survive the application of glyphosate herbicide, known commercially as RoundUp. The crop allows farmers to spray the herbicide directly over their fields, killing weeds but leaving the soybean plants unharmed.
Eight separate varieties of GE corn seed were sold in Vermont in 2004, according to the report. These include herbicide-tolerant brands, such as RoundUp Ready and Liberty Link corn, as well as other GE varieties that carry genes designed to protect corn plants from various insect pests. Dow AgroSciences’ Herculex I corn seed, for example, contains gene sequences from the Bacillus thuringiensis soil bacteria that makes the corn plants toxic to corn borers, cutworms, armyworms, and other common corn pests.
Kerr said the figures are not a perfect measure of the amount of GE seeds actually planted in the state, since some Vermont dealers market their seeds in New Hampshire and New York, and some northern Vermont farmers buy GE seeds from Quebec dealers. Still, Kerr said, “From year to year, we should have a consistent enough methodology to assess the trend” of GE seed sales in the state.
Andrew Barker | Special to the Vermont Guardian