Legislation seeks protection for farmers

By Staci Matlock: The New Mexican

A group of New Mexico farmers and heritage seed advocates are lobbying hard to get a bill through the Legislature that would protect them from liability if their fields are cross-pollinated by patented, genetically engineered seeds.

It is the third time farmers have tried to get a similar bill passed, but this time it has the backing of Gov. Bill Richardson, who put it on his call for the session.

Senate Bill 303, known as the Farmer Protection Act, was withdrawn Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee and sent to the Senate Conservation Committee.

Under the bill, carried by Sen. John Pinto, D-Tohatchi, farmers would not have to create buffer zones around their fields to protect from cross-pollination by a patented crop. It also protects farmers from damages and attorney fees if they “unknowingly come into possession” of a genetically engineered plant. Finally the bill establishes ground rules for when the supplier of genetically modified seeds can inspect fields.

The New Mexico Food and Seed Sovereignty Alliance failed to get a similar bill, introduced by Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, two years ago. Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, carried the bill last year, but it died in committee after New Mexico Department of Agriculture Secretary Miley Gonzales said he was concerned the bill, as written, penalized farmers who chose to use genetically modified seeds.

This year the alliance started talking to legislators and the governor about the bill months before the session started, according to Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. The acequia association, and three native American farm groups — Traditional Native American Farmers Association, Tewa Women United and Honor Our Pueblo Existence — make up the alliance.

The bill was drafted by Isaura Andaluz, an Albuquerque beekeeper who also runs the nonprofit Cuatro Puertas, and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety.

Genetically engineered seeds have been a controversial subject among farmers and seed companies for years. Seeds can be genetically modified in a lab to resist common pests and diseases, helping farmers protect crops. But the engineered seeds are patented by the companies, such as Monsanto, that develop them. Farmers who use patented seeds aren’t allowed to save seeds and replant them from year to year. Farmers can be sued if the company thinks they’re using patented seeds without permission.

Some small-scale New Mexico farmers use vegetable and crop seeds grown for generations in the same geographic area. They worry the long-adapted genes in their heritage seeds could be changed if cross-pollinated by genetically modified crops. Moreover, they worry they could be held liable by the patent owners of genetically modified seeds if their fields are cross-pollinated.

Their fears aren’t unfounded.

Monsanto, one of the largest producers of genetically engineered seeds, has sued a few farmers claiming they knowingly collected seeds cross-pollinated by the company’s modified seeds. Courts have found in the company’s favor several times, and Monsanto dropped at least one case. In mid-January, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear for the first time arguments regarding genetically-engineered crops in Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com.