(Beyond Pesticides, August 3, 2007) Maine is no longer the only state to prohibit the use of genetically altered corn. Despite concern from the organic farming community, Maine joined the rest of the nation last Friday when the Board of Pesticide Control (BPC) ruled to allow Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn to be grown and sold in the state of Maine.
With the aim of reducing the use of hazardous pesticides, the BPC registered Bt corn products from Dow AgroSciences, Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Monsanto to be grown for animal feed. Bt corn is genetically modified to produce its own pesticide, a naturally occurring toxin that protects against a combination of insects.
Organic growers caution that overuse of the crop will lead to insect resistance to the Bt toxin, which is widely sprayed on organic crops.
“I think it might very well be a short-term solution and farmers will be forced to use more pesticides in the future,” said Board member Lee Humphreys, a market gardener. She warned that there are too many unknowns about the genetically modified corn, such as its long-term effect on the soil and in creating resistant bugs.
In addition, the safety of consuming milk and beef products from animals fed with Bt corn has not been fully probed. A 2000 report of the National Academy of Sciences on Bt crops concluded that “there is the potential for…adverse health effects” and recommended that “priority should be given to the development of improved methods for identifying potential allergens” in these crops.
“This technology has been out there about a generation,” testified Peggy Gannon, “and there have been no long-term tests on humans.” Ms. Gannon and others asked the Board to wait for approval until next spring to give the Legislature time to review new liability rules for planting genetically engineered crops.
Another concern is that the pollen from Bt corn will contaminate crops that are not bioengineered, possibly resulting in copyright infringement lawsuits from the chemical companies that manufacture the Bt corn seeds.
While allowing the corn to be grown in Maine for the first time, the Board plans to develop rules for the crops use to alleviate organic farmers’ fears of contamination.
“I’m only going to be able to say there aren’t unreasonable risks if we add some conditions (for use),” said Chairwoman Dr. Carol A. Eckert, M.D.
The applications were approved under the conditions that the three companies report sales data to the Board and support education and training. Just as important is the need to develop a strategy to prevent pollen drift, according to Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
He said farmers must also follow a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirement to use non-Bt corn on 20 percent of their corn acres, so insects have a refuge from the toxin.
“If the refuge is planted on the edge of cornfields then it would make a great buffer” with nearby farms, Mr. Libby said.
Although EPA asks farmers to set aside refuges of non-Bt crops, a biotechnology industry survey published in January 2001 showed that nearly 30% of farmers who grew Bt corn in 2000 did not follow the resistance management guidelines.
Along with considering the potential adverse effect on the environment of Bt corn, the Board required that farmers had shown a need to use the Bt corn.
“If we don’t take advantage of this technology, these farmers may not be here in five or 10 years down the road,” said Board member Richard Stevenson.
However, When Does It Pay to Plant Bt Corn?, a 2001 report, found that American farmers suffered a net loss of $92 million, or about $1.31 per acre, from planting Bt corn between 1996-2001.
Bt corn has been a controversial issue in Maine, especially between small organic farms and larger traditional dairy farms, but it would not be the first genetically engineered crop grown in Maine. The Roundup Ready line of canola, corn and soybeans, which has been modified to survive herbicides, has been legally grown in Maine for at least 10 years, the Board said.
But the fact that Bt corn can not be grown in Maine had been a point of pride for some environmental and agricultural groups, whose members worry that the rise of bioengineered crops will hurt wildlife and humans and give corporations too much control over farming.
The Board’s decision bows to the pressure of industrialized dairy farmers and underscores the difficulties that organic agriculture faces.