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Seeds of change

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Drought may still be Montana farmers’ No. 1 risk, says Kremlin wheat farmer Larry Johnson, but Senate Bill 218 seeks to protect farmers from potential risks likewise damaging: liabilities associated with the introduction of genetically engineered wheat in Montana. According to the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC) in Billings, more than 7,000 family wheat farms generate $800 million for Montana’s economy each year.

There are currently no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Montana’s wheat crop, but by 2010 there could be, “and the problem is that when [GMOs] are put out in the environment, the genie is out of the bottle,” says SB 218 sponsor and Senate President Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy. “So you better know what the potential for cross-pollination is, what the potential for screwing up somebody’s seed stock is. We want agri-business to have liability so it’s not farmer against farmer.”

Without passage of SB 218, Johnson confirms, the risks to farmers are these:

A farmer who plants genetically engineered wheat that accidentally contaminates a neighboring farm’s fields is liable for damages to those crops. Alternately, a farmer who chooses not to use genetically engineered wheat but ends up with his fields unintentionally contaminated with GMO plants can be sued by the biotech company for using its patented seed.

According to NPRC, Monsanto, a biotech company that produces genetically engineered crops, has filed at least 90 such patent-infringement lawsuits against more than 100 farmers in more than 20 states.

SB 218 shifts liability from the farmer to the company, which, Tester says, “from my perspective, puts the liability where it should be.”

Opponents of the bill, Johnson says, worry that if SB 218 passes, Monsanto would stop giving research dollars to labs in Montana’s university system, but Johnson sees that as “just a veiled threat.” SB 218, as he sees it, is “a protection issue for those [farmers] who don’t want to participate” in producing genetically engineered wheat.

SB 218 was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee Feb. 4 and should either be approved or tabled in the Senate this week.

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