Portland Press Herald
August 29, 1999
Sunday, August 29, 1999 Genetic-crops debate heightens By MEREDITH GOAD, Staff Writer Jim and Megan Gerritsen of Bridgewater, nestled up in potato country, worry that their way of life is in danger.
They see huge agricultural conglomerates creating genetically engineered crops. They fear that this new technology could destroy one of their key pest-control tools, dramatically reducing their yields.
"If we lose our ability to grow organic potatoes, that will affect our livelihood," Jim Gerritsen said. "We have five employees, so it will affect five families. Somebody's going to have some burden to bear on that."
The Gerritsens are part of a small but fiercely determined circle of Mainers who have kept the debate about genetic engineering going in the state during the last decade. While the rest of America generally has taken a ho-hum attitude toward the transgenic food that fills their grocery carts, these Mainers are passionately trying to push the issue to the forefront of public discourse.
The recent vandalism of a University of Maine researcher's field of genetically engineered corn was just the latest example, although an extreme one, of local activism by opponents of genetic engineering.
Three times now, activists have tried to force the issue of labeling of genetically engineered foods in the state Legislature.
"I think Maine may be the only state that's even had a labeling debate so far," said Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
Maine is also the only state that prohibits the use of Bt corn, a genetically engineered variety that produces a pesticide fatal to the corn borer. And five Maine organic farmers, including the Gerritsens, have joined a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that seeks to remove all Bt crops from the market.
The opposition to genetic engineering has been strong here, even though Maine farms aren't exactly a hotbed of genetically engineered crops.
The state has a short growing season and paltry production compared to the Midwest. Consequently, Maine is usually among the last to get access to genetically engineered agricultural products. Last year, just 1.5 percent of potatoes grown in Maine were genetically engineered. And it's estimated that just 100 acres of Roundup Ready corn were planted in the state this year, the first that the genetically engineered corn was available.
The Maine Board of Pesticide Control denied the registration of Bt corn in 1997 by a close vote: 4-3. It wasn't so much a philosophical decision as a practical one, said Paul Gregory, spokesman for the board. The companies that wanted to register the product didn't present a clear enough need for it in Maine.
"Maine growers don't spray for the corn borer, which is the target pest this corn was designed to control," Gregory said.
But genetically engineered foods are plentiful in Maine supermarkets. In its September issue, Consumer Reports magazine reported that one-quarter of U.S. cropland -- more than 90 million acres -- is now planted in genetically engineered crops. Genetically engineered corn and soybeans are found in everything from infant formulas to tortilla chips and even veggie burgers.
While surveys show that most Americans have accepted the safety of these products, Maine opponents of genetic engineering look upon the widespread availability of genetically engineered foods as "a big experiment," said Libby of the organic growers' group.
"There's a much bigger experiment under way than the one that's happening at the university," he said. "It's not an experiment that we've been told about or that we've had much of a voice in because there's no real labeling and no real choice for consumers."
Some opponents worry that widespread use of genetically engineered crops will lead to unintended environmental consequences. Others are more concerned about the social and economic repercussions of allowing large corporations such as Monsanto to control the seed and food supply.
Scientists say genetically engineered foods are no different from regular foods and that inserting foreign DNA into a food crop is similar to inserting a small phrase from one novel into another -- it adds information, but doesn't change the overall story.
"The technology itself poses nothing inherently dangerous," said Michael Vayda, a professor of biochemistry and assistant director for biotechnology research at the University of Maine. "It's very similar to selective breeding that humankind has been doing for the last 10,000 years, except that instead of thousands of genes at every cross, you're presenting only a small number of specific genetic instructions."
Although some transgenic foods have been found to have unexpected consequences -- soybeans modified with a gene from a Brazil nut were found to cause reactions in people allergic to nuts, for example -- that doesn't mean that all transgenic foods will have an unexpected impact, Vayda points out.
"These are things that need to be tested, and that's what science is for," Vayda said. "That's part of what John Jemison was doing here in Maine."
The recent vandalism at the University of Maine, although a relatively small gesture, echoes the kinds of protests that are happening in places like Europe and India, where consumers and farmers are rebelling against genetically engineered crops by "decontaminating" -- destroying -- the fields where they are grown. John Jemison, the researcher whose half-acre crop of Roundup Ready corn was destroyed, said the incident may be just the second case of "ecoterrorism" directed toward genetically engineered crops in the United States.
The first incident occurred just a few weeks ago at the University of California at Berkeley. The target was fields of corn that actually were not genetically engineered at all, according to Peggy Lemaux of the department of plant and microbial biology. The vandalism set a graduate student's work back six months to a year, she said.
At the University of Maine, Jemison was able to salvage some of his work with the Roundup Ready corn, which is genetically engineered to survive being sprayed with herbicides. The goal is to develop crops that will thrive despite being sprayed with chemicals that kill weeds growing in the same field.
Jemison called the incident "very stressful" and "disappointing."
"Our whole role is to be as open as we can be and to show people what we're doing," he said. "That's one of the troubling things because, you know, somebody's probably going to disagree with something that everybody does on a research farm. I just hope that this will never happen again."
Last week, it did happen again when part of a corn crop on a private farm in Newbury, Vt., was destroyed by someone who left behind literature opposing genetically engineered corn.
The Gerritsens' court fight against genetic engineering is in large part an economic one, although they say they also oppose the technology on moral and environmental grounds.
The Gerritsens own Wood Prairie Farm, a 110-acre organic farm in Bridgewater. They have 45 acres of cropland that they use mostly to grow certified seed potatoes. They also grow grain and secondary vegetable crops such as carrots, rutabaga, beets, onions and garlic.
The Gerritsens have been using Bt for 10 to 11 years now. Bt is a soil bacterium that kills certain insects by attacking their digestive systems. It is a favorite pest-control tool of organic farmers because it is such a precise poison -- it spares beneficial insects, leaves no residue on the plants and degrades quickly.
Bt crops, such as Bt potatoes and corn, are grown from seeds that have had a bit of DNA from Bt spliced into them. The result is that the plants themselves produce Bt. Insects either stay away or are killed when they eat any of the plant.
The five biotechnology companies that have developed Bt crops say farmers who grow them will be able to reduce the amount of pesticides they use on their land. U.S. farmers have embraced these genetically engineered varieties: The EPA estimates that this year 25 percent of all corn grown in the United States is Bt corn and more than 50 percent of soybeans are Bt soybeans. About 50,000 acres of potatoes are Bt crops. But Gerritsen and other organic farmers worry that if Bt potatoes and other Bt crops become widespread, insects will quickly become resistant to the Bt spray they apply directly to plants.
In a typical year, Gerritsen sprays Bt only twice. He goes out at about 4 p.m. and is finished by dark. The beetles eat a lethal dose of sprayed leaves overnight.
"As soon as the sun hits that crop at 5:30 the next morning, that Bt is already starting to break down," Jim Gerritsen said. "Some people criticize this as a weakness of Bt, but that's not my perspective. I want it to break down. I want it to do a lethal kill, and then I want it to disappear from the environment."
Using Bt and two other biological control tools -- a parasitic fungus and a predatory stinkbug -- the Gerritsens in recent years have been getting some of the best pest-control results they've ever had, rivaling that of conventional fields. But if Colorado potato beetles become resistant to Bt, that advantage will be lost.
Jim Gerritsen is unfazed by the biotech industry's assertion that most of the insects munching on Bt crops will get a lethal dose and won't be able to reproduce and develop resistance.
"That is not how nature works," he said. "There's always going to be a very rare individual that is going to be able to withstand something. When they live through and they end up breeding the next year with another individual, it may take some time but eventually you will develop resistance."
The Gerritsens have joined a federal lawsuit filed Feb. 18 on behalf of Greenpeace, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements and more than 70 other co-plaintiffs -- about half of them farmers -- demanding that the EPA reverse its position on Bt crops because the agency did not follow its own regulations when it approved the technology for commercial use.
The EPA has filed a motion to dismiss the suit, and a decision is expected in September or October. If the EPA is successful, Gerritsen believes the result ultimately will be the ruining of a "public good" -- the ability of the consumer to choose between conventional foods and organic foods.
"To me, it's akin to a new factory coming in from out of state and immediately polluting the air and water," he said. "Those are public goods that we here in Maine cherish, and what right does anyone have to come in here and ruin that? I think there will be questions down the line as to culpability and accountability."
But that accountability, in his view, does not include deliberately destroying research crops. Libby, of the organic growers' group, said he agrees, so far.
"I don't think it gets to the heart of the discussion," he said. "I can see why people might be frustrated and angry and use that as a way to take that out. But it seems to me the bigger need is for a broad political debate about why we're being forced to eat these foods, and that's why MOFGA's been in the Legislature the past few years and not in the fields."
Ironically, Jemison's next research project may be one that could shed some light on one of organic growers' major concerns. He's considering studying the possibility of cross-pollination between genetically engineered corn with regular corn. Organic farmers are worried that genetically engineered crops growing near their own fields will cross-pollinate with their organic crops, thereby "contaminating" them.
"I try to look at it on a case-by-case basis," Jemison said. "If the risks begin to outweigh the benefits, hey, I don't want to be there. I don't want that in our state. I don't want organic farmers getting into struggles with conventional farmers."
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Last Updated on 9/2/99
By Karen Lutz