Senate Democrats passed legislation banning genetically modified grass seed Wednesday night over Republican questions on why the bill did not go through the traditional legislative process.
The Senate approved the bill 25 to 11 after about three hours of debate, but its fate in the House remains uncertain.
Grass seed engineered to be resistant to popular weed killers isn’t on the market yet but is in development. The concern is that once plants can tolerate more exposure to the chemicals, people will use the herbicide in greater quantities, releasing more chemicals into the environment.
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy have not committed to supporting a ban on the genetically-engineered grass.
“In a short session that is supposed to focus on jobs and the economy, I’m concerned about enacting legislation this year that looks to preemptively ban a product that doesn’t yet exist without allowing the public, and experts, to weigh in,” Sharkey said Tuesday in a statement.
Malloy said he’s uneasy about the bill and has concerns about where the ban would place Connecticut in relation to the policies of nearby states. It’s a concern his administration expressed during the debate over last year’s bill requiring the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms.
Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney expressed concern that there wasn’t a public hearing on the bill. He tried to amend the bill and turn it into a study, but the amendment was defeated.
Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, said if there had been a public hearing maybe the University of Connecticut study, which says there would be a reduction of herbicides with these grasses, would have come to light.
Fasano was referring to a study by Jason Henderson and John Inguagiato, professors from the Turfgrass and Soil Sciences program, which concluded that herbicide applications would be reduced by 1-2 applications per growing season.
“In some cases, only spot sprays may be necessary in well-maintained established lawns,” the report says.
But Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, said the bill gives the Senate a rare opportunity to be proactive about something.
He said he hears all the time that government is reactive and not proactive. “This bill reverses that direction,” Meyer said. “This bill is based on a precautionary principle.”
He said there is increasing science that shows the toxicity of pesticides and herbicides.
Sen. Clark Chapin, R-New Milford, said the science on this is still up for debate and it’s a very controversial topic.
“We’re at least two years away from the market,” Chapin said.
Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, a proponent of the legislation, said the ban is necessary to protect the future health and safety of Connecticut’s environment.
“The introduction of GMO grass seed would lead to a harmful increase in the use of toxic herbicides resulting in runoff into our rivers and the Long Island Sound, and increased hazard to plant and animal life,” Williams said.
GMO grass would also prove much more difficult to contain than all other GMO plants because it’s a perennial plant and the seeds can easily spread and could cross-pollinate with other grass species, spreading individual genes from one species to another. This could lead to an artificially modified gene spreading into the broader gene pool, with untold consequences, Williams explained.
Scotts MiracleGro, which was referenced frequently during the debate, said it was disappointed with the vote. Lance Latham, a spokesman for Scotts, said the company was “very concerned about a legislative process that excluded a fact-based, transparent discussion about the issues.”
He said the company is not going to be bringing the product to market in the next few years and he hopes lawmakers reach out to learn more about what the company is trying to accomplish.
A coalition of business leaders, farmers, landscapers, scientists, and the biotechnology industry also expressed their disappointment in Wednesday’s vote.
“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,” said Paul Pescatello, a board member for the Connecticut United for Research Excellence (CURE). “ 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.”