Fear feeds genetically engineered crop debate

Posted April 17, 2009, at 9:31 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislators on the Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation Committee learned Friday that 12 years after they first began hearing bills on genetically engineered crops, it wasn’t any easier.

Testimony on five genetically engineered crop bills revealed a high level of passion and fear.

“This isn’t about science,” Rep. Benjamin Marriner Pratt, D-Bangor, who sponsored three of the five bills presented Friday, told his colleagues. “These issues go beyond biology. They go beyond science and the scientific method. To pretend otherwise is to do a disservice to the people of Maine.”

Many people do not believe there is a difference between genetically engineered crops and conventional crops; others think the technology is too new and has not been tested sufficiently.

Crops are genetically engineered when the DNA of one gene from one crop is inserted into the DNA of a gene of a separate crop. Most of the current genetically engineered crops are created to contain their own pesticides and herbicides. Some crops, however, are being grown to contain medicines and pharmaceuticals.

Scientists have consistently said that this technology will allow for less pesticide use and greater crop yields, as well as a renewable source for medicines such as insulin.

Others, however, have an attitude similar to Chris Miller of Gray.

“I do not believe in the rules protecting us,” Miller testified Friday. “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. This is the ultimate science-fiction story.”

Maine is far from alone in this debate. Across the country, 48 bills about genetically engineered crops are now being heard by state legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Currently only genetically engineered corn, canola and soybeans are being grown in Maine.

In the past, the organic community has been solidly behind every bill proposed that would control, regulate or prohibit genetically engineered crops. But even they were divided Friday.

Four organic dairy farmers said regulations that pit conventional growers against organic growers are unnecessary.

“I have nothing against my conventional neighbors,” Franklin County organic dairy farmer Martin Lane said. “We are all just trying to feed the country.”

Only one bill seemed to be unilaterally supported.

LD 557 directs the University of Maine to study a potato developed by a Chelsea backyard gardener that appears to be toxic to the Colorado Potato Beetle.

The beetle can decimate potato crops, tomatoes and eggplants. Proponents said that if the potato study shows it can replace pesticides, it could save $200 an acre for potato farmers.

The committee unanimously passed LD 557.

No date has been set for work sessions on the remaining four bills, which are:

ä LD 708: This bill would enact a 10-year moratorium on the open-air production of genetically engineered pharmaceutical crops. Pratt said the bill was aimed at protecting Maine’s food supply. “Our goal is to make sure pharmaceutical drugs do not make it into our food stream.” Jon Olson of the Maine Farm Bureau opposed the bill, testifying that any bill that limits Maine farmers’ ability to compete with the rest of the country should not be passed.

ä LD 804: This bill would refine the state’s existing genetic engineering regulations and includes references to the state’s best management practices for genetically engineered crops that have not yet been finalized. It also provides a framework for inspections, requires buffer zones between organic and conventional crops and spells out a violation process that kicks in when an organic farmer’s crops become contaminated by neighboring genetically engineered crops.

“The onus falls on the organic farmer, which flies in the face of what I learned in kindergarten about cleaning up your own mess,” Rep. Peter Kent said. Logan Perkins, representing the Maine Organic Farming and Gardeners Association testified that “unless you include every backyard gardener, you will accomplish nothing with this bill.” The Maine Department of Agriculture also opposed it, saying it would have to hire three seasonal 26-week inspectors to fulfill the bill’s requirements.

ä LD 965: This bill would establish an annual reporting system for genetically engineered crops. The measure, which supporters said would provide information vital to state policy decisions and allow the state to track growing trends, may not be necessary since the National Agriculture Statistics Service has said it will begin surveying and collecting data in 2008 on GE growers.

ä LD 1202: This bill would set out a process for investigating any farmer accused of intellectual property theft of genetically engineered material. The largest developer and seller of patented genetically engineered seed, Monsanto, has filed more than 112 lawsuits against farmers in 29 states, Perkins testified. Basically, she explained, the bill would protect Maine farmers from unreasonable search and seizure, and provide third-party verification to all test results.

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