March 25, 2010

Maine a hotbed of crop legislation

By BETH QUIMBY Staff Writer

— By BETH QUIMBY

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click image to enlarge

Staff Writer

Nobody knows just how many acres of genetically altered crops are grown every year in Maine.

A bill being proposed by Rep. Benjamin Pratt, D-Eddington, would change that.

''We need to know what we are dealing with,'' Pratt said.

Pratt is sponsoring three of four bills aimed at regulating genetically modified crops. They are scheduled for a series of public hearings Friday before the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

The hearings are expected to draw crowds from both sides of what has become a perennial hot-button issue in Maine pitting organic farmers and people worried about the safety of genetically engineered crops against the biotechnology industry and conventional farmers, who say such crops are perfectly safe and allow Maine farms to be competitive.

''We have been growing genetically engineered crops for 10 years without any complaints,'' said Robert Tardy, a Maine lobbyist who represents the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D. C.

Advocates of regulating genetically engineered crops say the bills serve as precautionary measures.

''Let's take some time to look at this closely,'' said Bob St. Peter, executive director of the Food for Maine's Future.

Maine is a hotbed of legislation involving genetically modified crops. Only Hawaii, with 13 proposed bills, and New York, with 10, have more.

There are 48 bills about genetically engineered crops in state legislatures nationwide this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last year, the Waldo County town of Montville became the first community in the nation to pass an ordinance banning the cultivation of genetically engineered crops.

Genetically engineered crops were first introduced in Maine about a decade ago, but moves to restrict them have been around since the early 1990s. Farmers in Maine are growing genetically engineered corn, canola and soy beans.

The state's Pesticide Board regulates the use of all crops genetically altered for pesticide and herbicide purposes. Other crops altered for other purposes must be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

John Jemison, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service specialist who has done research on the impact of genetically altered crops in Maine, said there are pros and cons.

He said he has found that there have been low levels of cross-pollination between genetically engineered and conventional crops. He has found production benefits in canola genetically altered for weed control. The jury is still out on benefits of corn altered to resist insect pests, Jemison said.

Both sides in the debate are deeply entrenched in their positions. Proponents of genetically altered crops accuse opponents of being fuzzy on science, unwilling to comprise and not representative of the state's farming community, which would be at a competitive disadvantage without genetically altered crops.

''For some reason a small number of people in Maine have chosen this as the place in the world to plant their flag and stop genetic engineering,'' said Doug Johnson, executive director of the Maine Biotechnology Information Bureau.

Opponents say they are protecting Maine farmers from big corporations and ensuring the safety of locally grown food.

''It is an issue that hits home with a lot of people who are concerned about our food and what we are eating,'' said Logan Perkins, a lobbyist for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Some farmers say that the whole issue is being overblown and that Maine organic and conventional farmers can peacefully coexist without new laws.

Bill Spiller, president of the York County Farm Bureau and owner of Spiller Farm in Wells, said he sometimes uses genetically grown crops to control weeds in his corn, but he also uses organic growing methods. So far, he has had no problems with his organic farming neighbors.

''We get along pretty well,'' said Spiller.

 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

bquimby@pressherald.comGenetically engineered crops were first introduced in Maine about a decade ago, but moves to restrict them have been around since the early 1990s.

 

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