Sunday, May 19, 2013
BY MECHELE COOPER, Staff Writer
FAIRFIELD -- The state Board of Pesticides Control agreed Friday to add a new Bt corn product to the list of genetically engineered seeds grown in Maine.
Maine now allows 19 Bt products to be planted in fields now that Monsanto, a multinational biotech company, won its bid to register its new Bacillus thuringiensis corn here.
Chuck Ravis, professor of environmental science and ecology at Thomas College, was the sole member of the board who voted against the genetically engineered seed.
Ravis said he has "issues" with Monsanto's business practices and expressed concern about risks to human health and the environment.
"I do believe there's disagreement in the potential outcome of using these products," Ravis said at the meeting. "If we don't know that, I think we shouldn't be approving this."
Daniel Simonds, a board member who is a forestry consultant, said early in the meeting he hoped to focus on the issue at hand -- whether to register the new Bt product -- not questions about procedure.
"I have concerns about the process in which we approve these things, but we should have that discussion at a future planning session," Simonds said. "We shouldn't delay this."
John Jemison Jr., water quality and soil specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said it was his understanding that the new Bt corn will broaden insect control for insects not found in Maine.
"As long as we're not approving this for bugs we don't have here, that was my concern," Jemison said. "I can tell you for the fall army worm, Bt 11 did not work very well. If this works better than that, it would meet the need, if it's indeed better."
Jemison said the board needs to find a way to follow up on genetically engineered crops and keep a handle on new products that companies such as Monsanto want to register with the state.
The board's toxicologist, Lebelle Hicks, said two companies recently withdrew their requests to register other Bt corn products in Maine: Dow AgroSciences pulled its request to resister SmartStax; and Monsanto pulled two requests, she said.
As a condition of registration of Bt crops, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires all farmers who use Bt crops to plant at least 20 percent of their corn acreage as a "refuge."
A refuge is meant to reduce the possibility of insects developing resistance to Bt, so the EPA requires a certain percentage of planted acreage be set aside in which non-Bt protected corn will be grown. Refuges thus support populations of insects not exposed to Bt corn, and the insect populations in the refuges will help prevent resistance development when they cross-breed with insects in the Bt protected fields, according to the EPA.
The non-Bt refuge will decrease the odds that a resistant insect can emerge from a Bt field and choose another resistant insect as a mate, Jemison said. By preventing the pairing of resistant genes, these refuges help ensure that susceptibility is passed on to offspring.
Paul Schlein, spokesperson for the board, said Maine requires a farmer to plant at least 20 percent of their Bt corn acreage as a refuge, and that states can require more refuge acreage than the EPA mandates.
"The whole thing is about resistance," Schlein said. "If you don't have a certain amount of acreage that doesn't have this Bt, there's a good chance insects will become resistant. Bt is also used as a foliage spraying tool for organic growers. If insects become resistant, then they're not going to be able to use that."
He said refuge acres are requirements for Bt field corn. Refuge requirements for Bt sweet corn are different.
"They're required in that they have to plow down the stocks and leave those in the field," he said. "There is a concern if people are really going to do that or not."
Hicks said 4,000 acres of Bt seeds were planted in Maine last year.
Spencer Aitel, a dairy farmer in China, said he anticipated the board would approve the new Bt corn.
He said there will be no recourse for him if pollen from Bt corn drifts to his land, and said his organic corn crop yield is the same as from genetically engineered seeds whose farmers pay twice as much.
He pays $90 a bag for seed compared to Bt products that he said cost $250 to $270 a bag.
"It's been a slow, steady progression towards these traits over the years," Aitel said. "It's not helping us that much. But I guess we're going to have to learn this one the hard way."
Mechele Cooper -- 623-3811, ext. 408