Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. CT Mirror
Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. calling for a ban on genetically engineered grass seed.
Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. calling for a ban on genetically engineered grass seed. CT Mirror

The state Senate voted 25 to 11 Wednesday night for legislation that would ban grass seed that is genetically engineered to resist pesticides and herbicides, a step that the Senate’s top leader calls necessary to protect the environment against the overuse of lawn chemicals. Opponents call the bill an overreaction to a product not yet on the market.

For the second time in two years, Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, has taken the lead on legislation addressing genetically modified organisms. Also for the second time, House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, is looking skeptically at a pet issue of his Senate counterpart.

It was unclear Wednesday night if Sharkey would call a vote in the House before the session ends May 7, especially with House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, promising strenuous opposition, which likely means delaying actions.

Cafero said Republicans object to the substance of the bill and the method by which it was passed: Williams amended a pesticide bill to include the ban on genetically engineered seed. The ban never was subjected to a public hearing.

“So we will do everything in our power, especially when they don’t go through the normal processes, to make our point,” Cafero said.

Williams said the grass seed now under development by Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. is engineered to resist herbicides, which will encourage the greater use of herbicides such as Monsanto’s “Roundup.”

“You have to look especially at the chemicals that are being used and the health consequences to people, plants and the environment,” Williams said. “The evidence is out there that the use of GMO products generally have resulted in an increase of pesticide and herbicide use.”

“Blanketing lawns, parks, and athletic fields in these dangerous chemicals will endanger the children and pets that play on them, while eventually risking the development of weeds that are resistant to current herbicides and pesticides, requiring even more toxic substances be used,” said Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, the co-chairman of the Environment Committee.

Three Republicans joined all 22 Democrats in voting for the bill. They are Toni Boucher of Wilton, Art Linares of Westbrook and Joseph Markley of Southington. An amendment offered by Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, would have authorized a study in lieu of a ban. It failed.

“In my opinion there are some sources of concern about genetically engineered grass seed, but there’s not enough yet known for me,” McKinney said.

Trade groups and the bioscience organization CURE, Connecticut United for Research Excellence, are lobbying the legislature to block the bill. They say that genetically engineered grass seed can produce lawns that require infrequent mowings and less water, fertilizer and herbicides.

Tara Cook-Littman, a founder of GMO Free CT, the group that won passage of the labeling bill, said the industry has focused on genetically engineered seeds that encourage more chemical use, not less. She said a danger of the new seeds is that pollen could contaminate other plants and create chemical-resistant weeds.

So-called “Roundup Ready” seeds have been under development for more than 15 years.

Cook-Littman said that state legislation is necessary in light of the federal government’s refusal to regulate the use of the seeds. But Paul Pescatello, a board member of CURE, said the measure was without scientific foundation.

“This proposed law is an assault on science and sends a dreadful, chilling, message to all those researchers, companies and entrepreneurs we hope to attract to the state,” Pescatello said. “We’ve worked hard to bring the biotechnology industry here, what this bill does is send a message that science and innovation aren’t welcome.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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