Co-existence? Carte blanche to big biotech (22/4/2007)

EXTRACT: Co-existence, as practiced by the department, no more supports peace among farmers than "peaceful co-existence" did among nations. So far, it has been an excuse to give carte blanche to big biotech.


Dylan's got the answers about genetic engineering
C.R. Lawn of Waterville Central Maine, Morning Sentinel, April 22 2007

[C.R. Lawn of Waterville, a longtime Bob Dylan fan, founded Fedco Seeds in 1978]

Why do we need to amend Maine's laws concerning genetically engineered seed? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

If the state Board of Pesticides Control, as expected, approves applications from biotechnology giants Dow, Pioneer and Monsanto to register genetically engineered (GE) corn, that corn's acreage in Maine will increase.

Both corn and canola readily cross-pollinate. Their pollen is wind-borne. No one can build a fence high enough or tight enough to keep it out. As acreage increases, so will the risk of contamination of non-genetically engineered crops and consequent economic loss, especially for certified organic farmers whose markets demand GE-free products.

The Russians tried in Berlin to keep people in. As Cold War tensions escalated, Bob Dylan wrote his legendary anthem in April 1962. The Cuban missile crisis would unfold six months later. For decades, we would live under "peaceful co-existence," a euphemism for a process neither peaceful nor supportive of either side's existence.

So when the Maine Department of Agriculture, years later, promulgated its "Plan for Co-existence" between GE and non-GE growers, the words brought back chilling memories.

Co-existence, as practiced by the department, no more supports peace among farmers than "peaceful co-existence" did among nations. So far, it has been an excuse to give carte blanche to big biotech.

Back to Dylan. How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn't see? In 2001, the Legislature passed a first-in-the-nation law requiring GE seed manufacturers to provide planting instructions to minimize potential cross-contamination. But the state's agriculture officials never adequately enforced the law, allowing Monsanto to disseminate "instructions" that didn't teach farmers how to take any specific steps to minimize potential cross-contamination, and moreover, they implied that 80 feet was a safe distance to separate varieties to prevent crossing.

The minimum industry standard for separating hybrid corn varieties is 660 feet. The USDA Yearbook of Agriculture, 1961, recommends 1,260 feet.

State agricultural officials, while extolling biotech's benefits, have never acknowledged its risks. Their co-existence plan, though drawn from a document by organic expert Jim Riddle, deleted his most important section on risk and neutered his language, substituting the word "mix" for "contaminate." The issue is not mixing per se, it is the consequence of mixing, which is contamination of the non-GE crop. The consequences are not equal.

Co-existence requires that the risk and the burdens of avoiding risks be shared reciprocally by both parties. Compare Riddle's definition of co-existence -- "the ability of farmers to provide customers with a choice between GE and non-GE ... crops and products" -- with the department's tepid -- "the ability of farmers to meet the needs of their customers while respecting the needs of their neighbors."

Respect is not sufficient when neighbors can unintentionally inflict economic damages on each other.

L.D.1650 would provide some of that protection. While neither banning nor restricting the use of GE technology, it would make GE patent holders, not farmers, liable for any contamination that results in damages over $250. If biotech proves as safe as its lobbyists claim, the costs will be negligible. If not, the multibillion-dollar gene giants that benefit most from the technology will be far better able to bear its costs than our small farmers, who could be put out of business by one lawsuit. We haven't yet had any farmer vs. farmer lawsuits over GE in Maine. L.D. 1650 would keep it that way.

All disputes would be heard in Maine courts under Maine law instead of in Missouri where most GE cases go now. A court order and prior notification would be required before company representatives could come onto a farmer's land to test for patent violations, overriding typical provisions in GE technology use agreements where farmers sign away those rights. Farmers whose crops were tested could request that split samples be taken for independent verification. These modest provisions would help level the field, both for farmers using GE technologies and neighbors choosing not to.

How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man? Time for each side to grow up and eschew knee-jerk reactions.

Organic advocates like me must recognize biotech is here to stay at least until supplanted by better/safer science, and efforts to ban it will be fruitless and counterproductive.

Big biotech must recognize organic is here to stay, respect its choice not to use the technology and acknowledge its right to protection from genetic contamination. Both sides need to preserve choices for all farmers.

C.R. Lawn of Waterville, a longtime Bob Dylan fan, founded Fedco Seeds in 1978


Monday's Legislative Hearings

AUGUSTA -- Here is a partial list of the bills being heard by legislative committees this week.


Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, 287-1312

1 p.m., Room 206, Cross State Office Building

L.D. 1650 -- An Act To Amend the Laws Concerning Genetically Engineered Plants and Seeds (Sponsor: Rep. Schatz of Blue Hill)


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