Rounding Up GMOs

February 6, 2010 at 12:43 pm Leave a comment

More of New Hampshire agriculture is at stake this year than whether cider or milk is named as the New Hampshire state beverage—although that question is stirring quite a debate.

The House Environment & Agriculture Committee is set to make recommendations on Feb. 18 about genetically modified organisms. Specifically, they’re deciding if genetically modified seeds should be labeled as such, and what rights farmers have if genetically modified organisms from other fields accidentally drift into their crops.

Front Door Politicsmixing crops

The right of farmers to sue for damages if genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, mix with their own crops would only be fair play, according to Rep. Susan Wiley (D-Center Sandwich).

She was inspired to sponsor House Bill 1388, which would give farmers this legal “right of action,” by the case of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser. In the late 1990s, he was sued by the makers of a genetically modified canola seed when they discovered their patented genetic material in his crops.

Genetic material from one crop often “drifts” in pollen carried on the wind or in seeds carried by birds, for example. Wiley understands that GMO patent-holders might not want their genetic property showing up in the fields of a grower who didn’t buy rights to the patent.

But, she argues, the same grower may not want the genetically modified material that drifts into his fields. If the patent-holder has the right to sue, then so should the owner of the crops exposed to GMOs.

“What’s fair is fair,” Wiley says, pointing out that unwanted genetically modified material could put an organic grower out of business because GMOs are not permitted under USDA organic certification. If those growers were to lose certification or suffer financial damages, “they should have the right to fine someone,” she says.

But not all farmers who follow organic practices seek USDA “organic” certification, for reasons that include cost and just plain aversion to paperwork. Wiley is not clear if her bill, as written, would define “damages” beyond the loss of organic certification. She says she will research implications for non-organically certified growers before the bill’s public hearing on Feb. 11.

The Schmeiser case was decided in favor of Monsanto. Through appeals, Schmeiser’s obligation to pay $400,000 in damages to Monsanto was waived, but Monsanto’s claim of patent infringement was upheld.

“It’s a bigger issue in the Midwest, where farms are bigger and closer together,” Wiley admits. She says Monsanto has brought charges of patent violations against growers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Indiana and Louisiana. Several other companies also hold patents to genetically modified seeds, but she is not aware of any GMO patent violation cases in the Granite State.

That’s a major reason the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Lorraine Merrill, has publicly said she does not support HB 1388, according to Wiley. “She doesn’t feel the security of our fields is in danger. But as we have more and more backyard farmers, it could be more of an issue,” Wiley says.

Front Door Politicslabeling GM seeds

Genetically modified seeds will also get a second look with another bill sponsored by Wiley.

The New Hampshire Seed Law requires that all agricultural, vegetable and flower seed packages sold in the state must be labeled with a host of information, including germination rates and specifics on any chemicals used to treat the seeds. House Bill 1172 would add genetic modification to that list.

“We all need to know what we’re eating,” Wiley says. “But we should at least know what we’re planting, and labeling GMO seeds is not asking a whole lot of anyone.” She eventually wants to expand the GMO labeling requirement to packaged and processed foods.

Front Door Politicsmore Granite: cider or milk?

As for the state beverage question, the cider and milk contingents made their cases at a well-attended public hearing on House Bill 1206 on Feb. 4.

On one side: the fourth grade class from Jaffrey that last year requested cider be named the official state beverage of New Hampshire. They were opposed by counterparts from Dover, who argued for milk.

Another side opposes the entire topic of discussion, arguing that the Legislature should not waste its time on such trivialities. And still another sees this engagement in the legislative process as a valuable learning opportunity for children.

Rep. Suzanne Smith (D-Hebron) sides with the valuable education camp. She says her knowledge of government at that age was limited to an explanation of the three branches—executive, legislative and judicial.

Smith seems less interested in the state beverage decision than in the kids who have initiated the debate.

Some of these schoolchildren may be future New Hampshire legislators, she says, and she’s glad they’re learning so young how government works.

“It’s really going to be interesting to see where they are in a few years,” she says.

Entry filed under: farming, Food & Drink, state beverage. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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