February 17, 2020

Genetic contamination reaps disaster

The Bangor Daily News’ editors (April 10) correctly observe that it is “logical that the manufacturers … of any product with a clear potential to drastically alter the environment would bear responsibility.” They go on, however, to suggest that Maine lawmakers should be cautious about enacting LD 1266: “Holding the manufacturers and users of GE seeds responsible for environmental contamination would be an economic disaster if the assessment of damages becomes a legal battle between multi-billion dollar corporations and small family farms.”

The editors should take another look at LD 1266. It does not, in fact, impose any added liability on users of GE seeds beyond that which already exists under common law principles of trespass and negligence. The bill focuses on the obligation of manufacturers, precisely to protect family farms from liability and expensive litigation. The bill requires something that no governmental agency has yet thought to require: clear instructions written by the manufacturer and delivered to every grower, spelling out how to avoid the risk of cross-contamination, including establishing adequate buffer zones between GE crops and conventional crops.

The Midwest is indeed awash with genetic contamination – including contamination of corn in our taco shells that is potentially allergenic and has not been approved for human consumption – because state and federal agencies didn’t step in sooner to ensure that manufacturers prevent genetic contamination. The best insurance against litigation and costly damages is prevention. LD 1266 is a reasonable, responsible means of prevention.

Does the Bangor Daily News seriously think that this administration in Washington is going to step up to the bat to solve this problem? Think again. Consider that Linda J. Fisher, vice president of government and public affairs for the “genetic giant” Monsanto, has just been nominated to be second in command at the Environmnetal Protection Agency. The first responsibility to protect its citizens, its farmers and its natural resources – in legalese, the “police power” – lies with the states, not the federal government. It’s a failure of the states to act that will spell “economic disaster” for our farmers, and potentially for our forests and other natural areas.

The threat of cross-contamination by GE field corn – of which an estimated 1000 to 1200 acres were planted in Maine last summer – is a threat to the burgeoning Maine organic dairy sector. These farmers will lose their organic certification, and the consequent premium prices, if they feed their herds field corn that has been genetically contaminated. Presently, organic farmers have no way of knowing whether their neighbors are growing crops that present a risk of contamination, and there are not even any “best management practices” in place to address the issue of cross-contamination.

The Iowa State Extension service recommends a 1,000-foot buffer as necessary to prevent cross-contamination by GE corn. LD 1266 does not mandate any particular buffer zone, but requires the manufacturer of each seed variety to determine what buffer zone is requisite to avoid cross-contamination.

While Maine organic farmers have much to lose from the risks of cross-contamination by GE crops, all farmers have a right to grow the crop of their choice without cross-contamination by GE crops. Many conventional farmers face loss of income as a result of cross-contamination. In markets, particularly overseas, non-genetically engineered crops are commanding a premium.

A case in point is the emerging practice by Maine potato farmers of growing rotations of food-grade soybeans, which command premium prices from a Canadian distributor who packs and ships them to China and Japan. The soybean rotations have the added benefit of enriching the soil and reducing chemical fertilizer and pesticide inputs. Because of the deep distrust of genetic engineering among Asian consumers, the Asian buyer for the food grade beans stipulates that they not be genetically engineered. According to Vernon DeLong, executive director of the Agricultural Bargaining Council, 1400 acres in Maine were grown with food grade beans last year, and the program has been increasing at the rate of 500 acres a year.

The March 20 issue of the Bismark, North Dakota, Tribune, coincidentally, reports the story of Montpelier, N.D., farmer Tom Wiley, whose food-grade soybeans tested at 1.37 percent contamination by genetically engineered varieties, too high for the Japanese distributor that had contracted to buy his crop at a 20-cent premium. “I was stunned and sick to my stomach,” Wiley said. “I finally went into the house to tell my wife we had just lost $6,000 because of a neighbor’s planting decision.”

Clearly, with growing consumer distrust of the adequacy of federal regulation of genetically engineered foods, both domestically and overseas, a Maine farmer’s right not to grow genetically engineered crops by accident should be preserved.

Sharon Tisher of Orono is chair of the public policy committee of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners.

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