State legislation could have a trickle effect, adding uncertainty for businesses looking to bring GE products to market.

On June 17, 2019, Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed a new law, which creates a committee to review new genetically-engineered seed traits before they can be sold, distributed or used in the state. This law makes Vermont the only state to require additional approval of seed technology on top of the federal process. It also begs a number of questions for which there are no answers to date.

The new law requires Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Marketing (AAFM) or a designee to convene a four-person committee to review all new genetically-engineered seed traits.

The language was part of a larger agriculture bill that moved quickly through the state legislature. It was introduced by the entire House Agriculture and Forestry Committee, not a specific representative or outside party. The bill was originally introduced March 15 and then put on the House calendar for the first time March 19 and signed by the governor three months later.

According to Cary Giguere, director of Public Health and Agricultural Resource Management for AAFM, Vermont’s House and Senate Agriculture committees met with AAFM before the bill was signed into law.

However, input from outside stakeholders was limited.

“To the best of our knowledge, there was never a noticed hearing or committee meeting to discuss the added language and any issues or concerns about it,” says Pat Miller, director of state affairs for the American Seed Trade Association. “Agricultural stakeholders, including registrants, seed manufacturers, distributors, agronomic service providers, academics and farmers were not given an opportunity to weigh in on policy.”

While not explicitly stated in the bill, both Giguere and Rep. Carolyn Partridge indicated that the impetus behind the bill was to give Vermont a way to regulate dicamba-resistant corn if it was to be commercially sold.

“There is a new dicamba-resistant corn seed that the AAFM would like to be able to review before it becomes available in the State,” wrote Rep. Patridge, a Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, on her blog and in the Berkshire Eagle. “Disastrous consequences could result to fruit orchards, vineyards and sugarbushes if a volatilization event occurred here in Vermont.”

Giguere further explains that the legislature is concerned about the lack of regulatory mechanisms states have in managing concerns and complaints tied to genetically-engineered seed. He says other states are struggling to manage the number of complaints received around recent traits available commercially, which stresses government agencies’ resources. This legislation, he says, aims to pre-emptively limit complaints by addressing known concerns, thereby freeing up AAFM resources.

The committee is responsible for determining if additional steps are needed to prevent genetically-engineered seeds from having an adverse impact on agriculture within Vermont.

The state’s four-member committee will comprise: a certified commercial agricultural pesticide applicator, an agronomist or relevant crop specialist from the University of Vermont or Vermont Technical College, a licensed seed dealer and a member of a farming sector affected by the new genetically-engineered seed.

A majority of the seed review committee must approve of the sale, distribution or use of new genetically-engineered seed. The committee will then recommend to the AAFM secretary any limits or conditions on the sale, distribution or use of the seed. Based on this information, the secretary will finalize and implement the recommendations.

At the federal level, biotechnology products are regulated through the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology. The process uses a risk-based system that ensures products are safe for the environment and human and animal health. This framework gives three U.S. government agencies (U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration) the authority to regulate genetically-engineered seeds. The framework also provides the three agencies a mechanism to work together, so that these products are properly regulated.

“In consideration of the Coordinated Framework’s process of review noted above, a review group of four individuals at the state level seems duplicative, unnecessary and impractical,” Miller says. “Nor is it possible that these individuals collectively have the resources, insight and comprehensive understanding of the approval process outlined.”

Right now, there are no plans to populate Vermont’s seed review committee. According to Giguere, it will not be formed until there is a new genetically-engineered seed trait that needs to be approved. There isn’t a formal application process for applying to serve on the committee or prerequisites other than filling the four categories laid out in the law. When the committee is needed, the secretary will select specific individuals to sit on it and determine what new biotechnology traits are allowed in the state and what limitations will be imposed.

When one looks at the number of row-crop acres grown in Vermont, the conclusion might be that the law doesn’t really matter. With a total market value of $17 million in grain and oilseed production, Vermont is the sixth smallest producer of row crops.

While the legislation is aimed at in-state production, its implications could be far-reaching. Other states could follow this precedent with similar legislation, possibly creating a patchwork of regulations and requirements for businesses to know and follow.