GENET archive


APPROVAL: Maine (USA) may finally let Bt corn be grown and sold

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SOURCE: Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram, USA

AUTHOR: Josie Huang


DATE:   13.07.2007

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The state could make a decision this month on the genetically modified corn with a built-in pesticide.

Over the past decade, a particular type of genetically modified corn has taken the farming world by storm with a built-in pesticide that wards off bugs from seed to harvest.

The exception has been Maine, the only state where corn engineered to produce the Bt toxin cannot be sold or grown. But that may change soon.

The biotechnology industry is trying to break into the Maine market again. And with science that protects against a wider array of pests and growing demand from Maine farmers, opponents of Bt corn are worried that the state won’t say no this time around.

Dow AgroSciences, Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Monsanto have applied to sell seven Bt corn products that would be grown for animal feed.

The Maine Board of Pesticides Control could make a decision as early as its next meeting on July 27 in Waterville, according to agency officials.

Maine’s organic farmers have spoken out against Bt corn at a past board meeting, warning that overuse of the crop would create insect resistance to the Bt toxin, a naturally occurring pesticide that is widely sprayed on organic crops. Another concern is that the pollen from Bt corn would contaminate crops that are not bioengineered.

Spencer Aitel, who is one of the 250 corn growers in Maine, said there would be no recourse for him if pollen from Bt corn drifted to his land.

”If your dog comes over in my yard and bites my kid, I can come back at the dog owner,” said Aitel, who grows corn to feed 150 Jersey cows on his dairy farm in China. ”It’s not so with genetically engineered corn.”

But Tom Cote, a dairy farmer in Pittsfield and an advocate for Bt corn, said he can only see benefits.

He said Bt corn is worth the additional $3 to $8 it would cost to plant per acre because it solves the conundrum of which type of pest will attack his corn in a particular year. Bt corn provides insurance against multiple pests, so Cote can avoid exposure to powerful pesticides while saving money from having to use them, he said.

”I’ve got a daughter who is doing more work on the farm, and if she doesn’t have to handle the pesticides, then I don’t have to worry about it,” Cote said.

Biotechnology firms last made a bid to sell Bt corn in Maine in 1997. As part of the application evaluation, the pesticides agency determined that Bt corn did not pose a risk to human health. The pesticidal protein in Bt corn attacks the digestive system of larvae that eat the corn, but is destroyed by the acids in people’s stomachs, according to staff toxicologist Lebelle Hicks.

The board, however, rejected the applications from Novartis Seeds and DeKalb Genetics by a 4-3 vote on the basis that growers in Maine did not demonstrate a need for the product, which at the time only protected against corn borers – a bug that farmers were not spraying against to begin with.

In the years since, the technology has advanced to where some Bt corn varieties can protect against combinations of pests, such as caterpillars, rootworms and cutworms.

Board member John Jemison, who leads its Bt Corn Technical Committee, said there still are mixed feelings about Bt corn on the board. But Jemison, who said he is abstaining from voting because he has accepted seeds from the applicants for his work as a water and soil specialist, could picture at least some applications getting approved.

”We’re in a bit of a different place than we were in 1997,” he said. ”Today the biggest difference is that I’ve seen fields that have been mowed down by cutworms, and farmers have had to go and re-seed the fields. That costs a lot of money, especially if they’re using a high-end hybrid variety seed.”

Bt corn would not be the first genetically engineered crop grown in Maine – the Roundup Ready line of canola, corn and soybeans, which has been modified to survive herbicides, has been legally grown in Maine for at least 10 years, the board said.

And Bt corn is already present in Maine in the form of processed food such as corn flakes, said Lauchlin Titus, an agronomist who consults for Monsanto and Maine farmers. He said some of the sweet corn sold in Maine may be Bt corn.

But the fact that Bt corn can’t be grown in Maine has been a point of pride for some environmental and agricultural groups, whose members worry that the rise of bioengineered crops will hurt wildlife and humans and give corporations too much control over farming.

Jemison encountered an extreme form of the opposition when a field of genetically modified corn he was growing for research was vandalized in 1999.

But these days some of the biggest critics of bioengineering have been sounding less confident. Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said he would be disappointed but not surprised if the Bt corn applications are approved.

Should that happen, there need to be conditions placed on growing Bt corn, such as requiring farmers to receive training and provide a strategy to prevent pollen drift, Libby said.

He said farmers must also follow a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirement to use non-Bt corn on 20 percent of their corn acres, so insects have a refuge from the toxin.

”If the refuge is planted on the edge of cornfields then it would make a great buffer” with nearby farms, Libby said.

If approved by the board this year, Bt corn products would be available in time for a 2008 planting, said Julie Kenney, a spokeswoman for Pioneer.

Kenney said Pioneer and the other companies decided to coordinate their applications because increasing numbers of Maine farmers were asking for their products. ”It was an industry approach to get this product approved and into the hands of the growers,” Kenney said.

The board meeting will take place at the Hampton Inn in Waterville beginning at 9:30 a.m.



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