Farmers are constantly struggling to maintain their livelihood while ensuring a supply of nutritious food for residents of Maine and people throughout the nation.For Maine’s organic farmers, the choice to farm organically is being threatened by regulation recommendations soon to be submitted to the state Legislature. Citizen voices can help ensure that solid regulations protect farmers’ right to choose how they farm, including farming organically.
On Friday, the Board of Pesticides Control will consider recommendations for rules governing the use of corn that is genetically modified to incorporate Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Depending on Board of Pesticides Control’s recommendations, the livelihood of Maine’s organic dairy farmers could be at risk.
Until this past summer, Maine had proudly been the last state to refuse the sale of Bt corn. It’s part of a decades-long tradition the state has maintained of support and promotion of organic farming. Maine has been at the forefront of the organic movement, with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association setting roots in Maine more than 35 years ago.
Today, Maine is home to nearly 100 organic dairy farmers and a variety of about 140 other organic operations throughout the state.
Bt corn poses a threat to Maine’s organic future through the possibility of cross-contamination. Because all corn is wind-pollinated, organic farmers are at risk if the genetically modified Bt corn cross pollinates with any organic variety.
So, if the Bt corn drifts over to an organic farm and pollinates corn on that farmer’s soil, the organic farmer’s crop is contaminated, his efforts to avoid genetically modified corn are wasted and his choice to farm organically is taken away from him.
Because of Maine’s location at the far northeastern corner of the United States, organic farmers struggle to produce or purchase certified organic feed for their animals. It’s hard to produce here and expensive to import from other states.
Contamination of Maine’s organic feed crops with transgenic varieties will have a devastating economic effect on Maine’s organic dairy industry, which relies on home-grown feed. Legislation needs to be in place to protect Maine’s organic producers from contamination.
Organic farms have the right to be legally and physically protected from the threat of cross-contamination, and organic farmers are hoping for a reasonable compromise: A buffer zone of 660 feet, provided by the Bt corn grower, should be in place between all transgenic and organic crops and should be the minimum buffer zone allowed. That 660 feet is the recommended isolation distance required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for keeping seed varieties pure and thus allows organic farmers to save their own seeds.
The responsibility to protect against contamination needs to be placed on the farmers choosing to plant the Bt corn — not on the organic grower.
Maine citizens, including Maine’s organic dairy farmers, have the right to know where Bt corn is being grown near their property. While the draft rules require seed dealers and farmers to keep records of where, and how much, Bt corn is being planted in Maine, the rules also provide that this information will be kept confidential, ostensibly to “protect” the identity of farms using Bt corn.
That information should be reported to the government and open for public access. Existing laws entitle any neighbor owning a “sensitive area” within 500 feet of a farm to request notification of pesticide use on that farm. The burden of notification should lie with the transgenic user.
In order to maintain the integrity of Maine’s organic dairy industry, the market and consumers expect — and organic farmers want to provide — organic farms that operate without the presence of genetically modified organisms and pesticides.
The Board of Pesticides Control should protect Maine’s organic farmers by setting strong guidelines to prevent cross-contamination and should state that the responsibility of contamination lies with the transgenic grower.
Melissa Hughes is general counsel for Organic Valley Family of Farms, America’s largest cooperative of organic farmers. Organic Valley produces more than 200 organic foods that are sold in supermarkets, natural foods stores and food cooperatives. For more information, visit http://www.organicvalley.coop, http://www.organicprairie.com or http://www.farmers.coop.