Genetically modified corn is coming to Maine, and a Maine Board of Pesticides Control public hearing will air proposed rules regulating its use.Bt corn is genetically enhanced to resist damage by pests and promises to boost production levels. Licensed by the Environmental Protection Agency for use in 1996, Bt corn is engineered to produce a toxin lethal to corn pests, particularly the European corn borer.
But a recent National Academy of Sciences report outlines unanswered ecological concerns from planting the engineered food. And exactly how the corn will be used and planted in Maine is still undetermined while the state considers rules governing its use.
Bt corn — for Bacillus Thuringiensis — could be used for the first time in Maine next year. The state Board of Pesticide Control approved the licensing of the product July 27.
Paul Schlein, board spokesperson, acknowledged that the process of placing restrictions on its use is coming after the product already was approved — an approach he called “cautious.”
“Most states in the country allow Bt corn with no additional restrictions beyond what the federal government requires or the label itself,” Schlein said Monday. “In the case of the (Maine) board, they decided to take a more cautious approach. It is a pesticide and we take a close look at every pesticide in the state.”
Proposed regulations include licensing for Bt corn; requiring dealers to keep records of sales; and training for anyone planting Bt corn.
Protect Maine Farmers — a group formed to reduce threats from what it calls “genetic trespass” — is urging people to attend the hearing and ask the board to reconsider its decision.
Logan Perkins of Protect Maine Farmers, which is opposes Bt corn’s registration, said a study funded by the National Science Foundation shows toxins from Bt corn may travel long distances in streams and harm water insects that serve as food for fish.
These results, she said, compound existing concerns about the ecological impacts of Bt corn raised in previous studies.
One study — in the Oct. 8 edition of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — shows Bt corn-grown toxins harm beneficial insects living in the soil.
Perkins said that study “should be the final nail in the coffin of Bt corn for Maine.”
“It clearly demonstrates that there is still a huge amount of research to be done to fully understand how far Bt corn can travel and what effects it has on its surroundings,” she said.
Perkins said Bt corn now accounts for approximately 35 percent of corn acreage in the United States and its use is increasing.
Organic farmers worry the use of Bt corn could lead to the evolution of pesticide-resistant insects and a process known as genetic drift — genetically modified corn crops pollinating and thus contaminating organic ones.
Opponents of the July decision to approve the pesticide corn suggest the National Academy of Sciences study should be grounds for the board to revisit its decision to license the product in the first place.
Jennifer Tank, a member of the team studying Bt corn at the University of Notre Dame, said the exact extent to which aquatic ecosystems will be affected is still unknown and likely will depend on a variety of factors, such as current ecological conditions, agricultural practices and weather patterns.
“Overall, our study points to the potential for unintended and unexpected consequences from the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops,” Tank said.
Schlein said the study will be presented to the board at the meeting for consideration.
“They may decide to establish an environmental risk advisory committee to look at the study,” Schlein said. “It’s the first of its kind. We take these things very seriously and don’t want to just accept (Bt corn use) out of hand without taking a close look. This study is getting a lot of attention right now, and even more so here.”