By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Next Friday a state Senate committee will hold hearings on the controversial Farmer Protection Bill. Discussion about the bill has already begun, with proponents and opponents speculating about the future of Montana wheat and the role of biotechnology in that future.
The bill, introduced by Senate President Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, is similar to bills that failed in the last legislative session. Those were written in response to Monsanto's plan to sell the first genetically modified wheat, Roundup Ready wheat.
The company has since postponed distribution of the product, but Tester introduced the bill in this Legisla-ture nonetheless.
"I think now is the time to address the issue without undue pressure from the industry," he said.
When it comes to genetically modified wheat and the possibility of cross pollination, there are two concerns, Tester said. One is that a farmer properly using a genetically engineered seed could inadvertently, through no fault of his own, contaminate a neighbor's crop and be exposed to a lawsuit from that neighbor. The other concern is that a farmer whose crop is accidentally contaminated might be subject to a lawsuit from the company that manufactured the seed.
"Let's eliminate one of those," he said. His bill addresses the first scenario, making the company responsible for accidental contamination.
The bill is largely theoretical, because the product is not yet on the market, said Lochiel Edwards, past president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, which opposes the bill. In addition, it could have an impact on the development of new technologies generally, he said.
If the bill passes, it could deter companies from developing products that could benefit wheat growers in Montana because of the liability factor, he said.
"The interesting part of this is more philosophical, and really, the bill is about philosophy," Edwards said.
Tester disagreed. "I think what this does do is they'll do the research necessary to find out what the cross-pollination spectrum is and then they will use that cross- pollination range for the instructions they will give farmers," he said.
Farmers have a right to continue producing products that are not genetically modified, he added.
Edwards said he understands the threat of contamination. "Some of our overseas customers have expressed doubts about buying any biotech wheats because of concerns in their countries," he said.
But the regulations, Edwards and the association argue, should come from the federal government, not state governments.
"We think national oversight and the dialogue with the companies are the way to go, rather than to isolate Montana in a global market," he said.
Brooks Dailey, president of the Montana Farmers Union, said his organization supports the bill.
"I really don't know how the companies are going to view this bill ... I think we have to look at this from the point of view of what do our markets want," he said. "There is concern that if (genetically modified wheat) is introduced, that the markets we have established are going to look elsewhere for the product and then where are we going to be?"
Importers of Montana wheat that are not interested in purchasing modified product include countries in the Pacific Rim, Europe and Egypt, he said.
Montana Grain Growers Association vice president Jon Stoner, who farms north of Havre, said he is worried about the implications of Tester's bill.
"The concern is that ... it's really an anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) bill. Our worry is that once you put up that flag, that you're not going to be deemed pro-technology," he said.
Stoner said the bill should not affect organic growers. "They should be able to keep their product separate, just as they are right now," he said. "Wheat does not cross-pollinate very easily."
Big Sandy organic wheat farmer Robert Boettcher said he is not surprised that MGGA would oppose the bill. Roundup Ready wheat would simplify the spraying process, which now requires several passes to target different types of weeds, he said. But there is also the possibility of unintended consequences.
"I'm in favor of Jon's bill. These companies need to take responsibility for what they're doing," he said.
Another Big Sandy organic farmer, Bob Quinn, said the risk is probably greater for conventional farmers than organic farmers.
"They have more to lose if they find contamination of supply going to Japan," he said.
Quinn said Japan has zero-tolerance for genetically engineered food and is one of Montana's biggest wheat importers.
Quinn is concerned because the product is new, and the company does not have a good way of controlling where it goes.
"They've made no effort. In fact, they want to shed themselves of all liability" even if the instructions are followed properly, he said. "Liability only shows up if there is a loss. If there is a loss, should the farmers be the ones that are penalized by that loss?"
Over time, if genetic drift occurs, that could limit the types of choices farmers have in selecting seed, Quinn said. Eventually, contamination could be complete, changing Montana's wheat forever and removing a farmer's options, he said.
Tester, who is an organic farmer, also has concerns about the effect of genetically modified wheat on Montana's wheat industry. Companies that sell modified seed require farmers to sell their product back to the company, narrowing farmers' options, he said.
Tester fears that the wheat industry will go the way of chicken farming. "The farmer cleans up the manure and pays the taxes," he said. Meanwhile, large companies control the market and set the prices, sell the farmers chicks, buy back the chickens, and leave little freedom on the part of the farmers in the interim.
"It's a little different way of doing business than what I'm used to," he said.
His bill is not about that, however, Tester said. "If the farmer has followed the rules and done everything by instruction and it screws up another farmer's agriculture, it shouldn't be the farmer who is liable," he said.
Chris Horner, a Monsanto spokesman, was at first surprised to hear that the bill was introduced this year.
"It's not going to be in the foreseeable future that we'll be re-entering this market," he said.
As to biotechnology and farmers' choices, he said the two should not be opposed.
"The idea that different types of agriculture can coexist is certainly not anything new in farming, nor is it anything specific to biotechnology," he said. "The idea that there needs to be special legislation for this, it doesn't seem necessary. This is something farmers have been dealing with for a long time. It's not anything different, biotech or no biotech."
To view the bill, visit http://data.opi.state.mt.us/bills/2005/billhtml/SB0218.htm.