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Lawmakers visit Monsanto plant

(Sunday, Nov. 9, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- David Mace, Times Argus (Vermont), 11/07/03: MYSTIC, Conn. - An industry-sponsored trip to a research center producing genetically modified crops did little to dissuade lawmakers opposed to genetically modified organisms.

But even GMO critics agreed that visiting industry giant Monsanto was a good learning experience and lawmakers who support the use of such crops found ample reinforcement for their views.

"I think it was very valuable," said Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington, an organic farmer who has spearheaded legislative efforts to regulate or ban the use of GMO's in Vermont. "The tour was what it was billed as. It outlined the science and benefits, and it's good to understand that."

Lawmakers on both side of the issue said the trip wasn't going to influence their position.

"My mind was not changed," Zuckerman said.

Some 20 lawmakers, mostly Republicans, took a trip on Wednesday and Thursday, which was paid for by the Council for Biotechnology Information, a Washington DC-based industry trade group.

Kimberly Morin, who heads up Monsanto's lobbying efforts in the Northeast, said the trip was only designed to educate lawmakers about biotechnology and present the industry's side of the story.

"We didn't set out to change any minds," she said. "... This is an effort to lay out what is the research and the science. We're not talking about the 'What ifs,' but the 'What is.'"

While a couple of protestors showed up at one stop where lawmakers were being picked up - Gael Wolfskill of Windsor held a sign reading, "Go on Monsanto's bus but don't get taken for a ride" - the trip was hardly a lavish junket.

The bus ride was bumpy and problems with the vehicle's heating system had lawmakers and others on the trip huddling under their coats for warmth. Lunch consisted of sandwiches on both days, and it was nearly 10 p.m. when the dinner program ended Wednesday evening, leaving no time for sightseeing.

Lawmakers watched a brief industry video on the way to the facility Wednesday, then spent several hours touring the various labs where researchers demonstrated how they develop genetically modified corn, the most prevalent GMO crop in Vermont.

They saw how scientists isolate genetic traits that later influence plant characteristics, then manipulate the plant by inserting a new gene - created by cloning - into the cells of a corn plant.

Speakers at both dinner and breakfast - an Iowa farmer who uses GMO's and a University of Connecticut professor, respectively - touted the potential boon such products could be, particularly for producing pharmaceutical products and industrial products.

Farmer Bill Horan explained how he had grown GMO corn that was used to produce a substance that has shown promise as a cure for cystic fibrosis, and how the time saved by using such crops had made farming a more acceptable job, recalling how as a child he'd spent endless hours weeding plants.

"My kids were on the swim team, the Little League team, in dance lessons," Horan said. "And as a parent, using (GMO) soy beans, I got to go watch them."

Company officials explained the benefits of such advances, including reduced use of pesticides. But skeptics like Zuckerman questioned some of the company's assertions that the products were safe and had been thoroughly tested, pointing out that virtually all of the tests were conducted by the biotechnology firms themselves or by contractors they paid for.

Organic and non-GMO farmers argue that pollen from GMO crops like corn could contaminate their fields as wind and insects carry it from its source, stripping the premium prices paid for organic crops and potentially endangering their organic certification.

Lobbyist Morin told lawmakers that organic standards didn't necessarily disqualify produce that was inadvertently cross-pollinated, and questioned whether any product could be absolutely protected from any form of contamination short of growing it indoors.

"This is agriculture," she said. "You can't get 100 percent purity growing something outdoors."

That's been the stance of the administration of Gov. James Douglas. Agriculture Commissioner Stephen Kerr has been working with an ad hoc panel to come up with "co-existence" rules, such as buffer zones and timed plantings, to minimize any harm to organic farmers from contamination by genetically modified organisms.

Anti-GMO advocates have blasted the effort, saying any level of contamination is unacceptable because consumers perceive it to void the claim that produce is organic.

The issue of regulating GMO's could resurface when lawmakers return to Montpelier in January. The Democratically controlled Vermont Senate passed that would require the labeling and registration of genetically modified seeds, but House Republicans effectively bottled it up in Committee.

One representative who's used GMO's said the trip reinforced his support for them.

Rep. Norman McAllister Sr., R-Highgate, a third-generation dairy farmer, said he and his son have been using GMO corn for the last four to five years, and have seen its benefits.

"I wanted to make sure I was knowledgeable about what my arguments would be going into the next session," he said.

McAllister said he was unhappy with what he felt were exaggerated claims by GMO opponents at the co-existence meetings he attended. Some of his neighbors' farms are going organic, but he said they're far enough away that they shouldn't be affected.

Using the seeds isn't a make-or-break proposition for his 130-cow dairy operation, he said, but is important.

"You could make it without (biotech) corn but with the (profit) margins as low as they've been for the last two years, if the risk is so low, why shouldn't I?" McAllister said.

Sen. Gerry Gossens, D-Addison, said he didn't consider himself pro- or anti-GMO, but said he was concerned about "the apparent lack of ethical concern," on the part of the Monsanto and the industry, and wondered whether the push to get GMO's on the market shouldn't be slowed.

"I still think back to DDT and PCBs, which were revolutionary in their time but we found out 10 years later to be terrible," he said, referring to the pesticide and industrial chemical later found to be environmentally harmful. "That doesn't mean these (GMO's) will be, but maybe we should consider moving more slowly."

Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Louise Calderwood, who attended but had the state pay her costs, said the trip was time well spent.

"It was very useful for me to hear the attendees' questions, to hear where their concerns are," she said.

"I hope the people who participated will be willing to spend an equal amount of time listening to the concerns of scientists and citizens in Vermont," Zuckerman said.

Amy Shollenberger, policy director for farm advocacy group Rural Vermont, said the question of whether it was appropriate for lawmakers to go on the trip depended on whether they were willing to keep an open mind on the issue.

"I think it's unfortunate Monsanto is taking them out of the state to talk about the issue," she said. "I think it's clear Monsanto and the other companies will be spending a lot of money to stop concerns about GMO's being raised in this state."

Contact David Mace at david.mace@timesargus.co