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Farmer Protection Act Passed by Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee

Farmer Protection Act Passed by Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee: Victory for Vermont Farmers in Spite of Agency of Agriculture's Antagonism



MONTPELIER, VT--The Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee today passed the Farmer Protection Act (s.18) with a 5-1 vote. The bill is now headed to the Senate floor, with a vote by the full senate expected on Tuesday.

"This is a great victory for farmers in Vermont," explained Amy Shollenberger, policy director for Rural Vermont, a statewide advocacy group that has been the lead on the bill. "The bill will protect Vermont farmers and send a clear message to biotechnology corporations that it is unacceptable to force farmers to assume all of the risk for their products."

The bill faced several challenges before being passed by the committee. The first challenge came last week, when the Senator Wendy Wilton (R-Rutland) moved to remove the liability provisions of the bill. The motion by Wilton was in response to 45 minutes of testimony from Vermont's Secretary of Agriculture, Steve Kerr, who claimed that the bill would "allow politics to trump knowledge" and that it would be a "poison pill" to stop the sale of genetically engineered products in Vermont. The Secretary recommended that the liability section be removed from the bill. This motion failed on a 1-5 vote.

Today, the bill faced another challenge, with a motion to limit the liability by changing a single word in the bill. The motion was to change the word "person" to "farmer" when referring to those who would suffer injury. This would have limited the manufacturers' liability by saying they would only be liable if a "farmer" suffered economic injury. If anyone else, such as a processor or seed distributor had a problem, the liability would stay with the farmer. This motion failed with a 2-4 vote, with only Senators Jim Leddy (D-Chittenden) and Wendy Wilton (R-Rutland) voting for it.

The committee unanimously agreed to remove the "patent infringment" section of the bill, on a motion from Chairman Dick Sears (D- Bennington). This motion was in response to a memo received from Vermont Law School Professor Oliver Goodenough which stated, "While this kind of patent liability is an issue which is legitimately creating concern among farmers, I do not believe that it is a matter over which Vermont law will have competence."

During the discussion on the motion to pass the bill, Senator Jim Leddy (D-Chittenden) noted that good fences make good neighbors, and in the absence of good fences, there has to be a way to resolve issues that arise. Chairman Dick Sears (D-Bennington) noted that it is a difficult issue and hard to know who is right. He concluded, "I'm going to err on the side of caution." Both voted for the bill, along with Senators Ed Flanagan (D-Chittenden), Ann Cummings (D-Washington) and John Campbell (D-Windsor), who is the lead sponsor of the bill.

Rural Vermont educates, activates, and advocates for living soils, thriving farms, and healthy communities. More information, including the final text of the bill is available at www.ruralvermont.org.