July 25, 2021

Agri-business’ empty promises threaten farmers

The Maine Board of Pesticides Control made the right decision on Dec. 12 to deny the request of Novartis seeds and DEKALB Genetics to introduce three genetically engineered field corn seeds in Maine.

The worthy promises of agri-business corporations, and their allies in the genetics field to increase food supplies, end world hunger, and use less chemicals, with genetically altered crops have recently proven to be empty promises.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency has conditionally approved registration of these proposed field corn seed products there are many flaws in thier process. Because of this, a petition was filed on Sept. 16, 1997 by more than 20 groups and individuals calling on EPA to rescind approval of transgenic crops because of the “wanton destruction” of the world’s most important biological pesticide — bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). A dangerous buildup of insect resistance with the widespread use of these pesticide containing crops would harm farmers, especially organic farmers, the suit alleges.

In addition, the petition claims that field tests of other transgenic crops have resulted in significant migration of the engineered genes into nearby crops or into the transgenics’ wild weedy relatives. To a small organic farmer like me this is extremely frightening stuff. EPA had until Dec. 16 to respond to the issues in the petition. (update: EPA has asked for more time and has ordered a Bt advisory committee be formed). Also, since the EPA has no resistance management plan, a group of scientists has called for the immediate convening of a government Science Advisory Panel (SAP) to address the problem. This panel is expected to convene Feb. 9 and 10 in Washington, D.C.

EPA, as a condition for registration of these products, only requires that the seed companies develop a long-term insect resistance plan instead of requiring the plan up front. This is a huge mistake and could eventually lead to crop loss and income depletion, especially for organic growers, who could lose their ability to use Bt against insects once resistance develops.

It is clear that EPA relies way too heavily on industry information and testing and is extremely lax in performing needed analysis of a process that has the potential to forever alter our agricultural environment. This means that the states need to step in to the breach exactly as the MBPC has done. We can’t do the testing, but we can opt to hold off on approving this experiment until more field knowleedge is in and some of the major concerns are addressed by answers to the perition and through the Science Advisory Panel.

Farmers in Maine generally use field corn as a silage crop, mostly for dairy cows. Farmers I know never use pesticides on this crop. There is no demonstrated need for a pesticide laden field corn in this state. (Need is required to be demonstrated by Maine statute before registration.) In fact, this year’s corn crop was remarkably free of insects.

Three events in the last year or so illustrate some of my concerns. Although they do not apply directly to corn they address some of the unintended consequences that can arise from the genetic engineering process.

First, a New York Times article titled, “Breeding Seeds of Discontent,” Nov. 19, 1997, reported a distressing 1997 season for cotton growers using a genetically engineered Monsanto cotton seed called “Roundup Ready cotton” and a seed called “Bollgard” that manufactures its own pesticide like the proposed Bt corn would do. Yields were down, but most disturbingly, more pesticides had to be used because of boll drop on the cotton plants. Both of these results contradicted the company promises.

More than 100 farmers have sued the company and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, the nations largest producer of seed corn announced its refusal to add Monsanto’s Roundup Ready gene to its corn.

Second, a very recent paper released by the Scottish Crop Research Institute reported that ladybugs that fed on aphids which themselves had fed on gentically modified potato plants had reduced lifespans and reduced fertility in female ladybugs by 38 percent. The scientists urged caution in approving these crops, stating, “Our current experiments highlight the importance of assessing all transgenic crops genetically engineered for pest resistance in this way, to be sure that any new type of pest-resistant crop does not jeopardize the delicate balance between pests and beneficial insects in agricultural ecosystems.” Remember that EPA has no resistance management plan and has done noe of this necessary testing.

Third, and perhaps most alarming, Ann Marie Chivre of INRA, the French national agricultural research agency, reported that oil seed rape plants which have been engineered to carry a gene for resistance to an herbicide, crossed and were carried to wild radish plants and remained viable for four generations.

In other words, the weeds will now also carry resistance to the herbicide and will be much harder to eradicate. This will likely require the increased use of herbicides. We will get more toxins in our bodies and our food, our farm land will become more depleted, and we are being railroaded in a gigantic, clearly faulty, badly researched experiment on human and plant populations and on the earth’s ecosystems.

Genetically engineered plants are a short-term profit-maker for wealthy corporations. But the jury is certainly still out on risk vs. benefits. New research and information has not been encouraging and thus, in my opinion, this experimental process deserves a great deal more caution that is being shown. Agriculture is one area where we all are affected by bad decisions. We should promote and encourage organic farming as a healthy practice. It is wrong and dangerous to lose control of our farming to greedy companies that could conceivably in the future be able to control what seeds we plant, how they are planted and what the results will be.

Let’s not lose the freedom to farm. We’ve lost way too much in this debate already.

Nancy Allen lives in Surry.

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