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CONTAMINATION & COEXISTENCE: Biotech-enhanced crops can co-exist in Maine (USA)







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TITLE:  BIOTECH-ENHANCED CROPS CAN CO-EXIST

SOURCE: Press Herald, USA

AUTHOR: Douglas Johnson

URL:    http://www.mainetoday.com/membercenter/nojscookie.html

DATE:   20.07.2007

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BIOTECH-ENHANCED CROPS CAN CO-EXIST

Douglas Johnson is the director of the Maine Biotechnology Information Bureau in Stonington.

For the past 10 years, opponents of biotechnology-enhanced crops in Maine have claimed bragging rights over the fact that our state is the only one in the nation to have turned down applications for growing Bt corn -- corn modified to contain the natural pesticide bacillus thuriengensis.

Though the close vote of the Board of Pesticides Control denying the applications in 1997 was officially because need for the corn had not been demonstrated, everyone close to the fray knew it was organized opposition, much of it from organic farmers, that shaped the outcome.

Now, three manufacturers of the seed have decided to try again and the fight has erupted anew. This time the battle isn’t over whether Bt corn hurts monarch butterflies or causes other environmental calamities; solid science in the intervening years has settled those questions with a resounding no.

This time organic growers are claiming Bt corn will cross- pollinate their organic corn, causing it to lose its organic status. This newspaper supports that claim and in an editorial called on the Board of Pesticides Control to include adequate buffer zones as a condition of approval (”Before Maine gets Bt corn, protect organic crops,” July 15).

Is the concern about cross-pollination justified? Should Maine’s organic farmers be worried? Corn is an open pollinating crop, so pollen from one corn field theoretically can pollinate a nearby one. But corn pollen is heavy and doesn’t travel far. It also loses viability quickly. Wind direction, weather and different maturity dates all play a role in cross-pollination.

Both research and practical experience tell us that cross- pollination between biotech and organic corn is not a problem. A biotech-enhanced corn that is resistant to herbicide sprays has been planted in Maine for years. Yet not one complaint has been lodged against it by organic growers. A study in Spain showed that after six years of cultivation, Bt corn can co-exist with organic and conventional corn ”without economic and commercial problems.” A 2004 report on U.S. co-existence reached a similar conclusion.

But isolated instances of cross-pollination have occurred between organic and biotech-enhanced crops. In agriculture, nothing is 100 percent.

So whose responsibility is it to make sure organic crops are pure, the organic grower or the neighboring farmer? The rules for organic production adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, after a lengthy comment period, place the responsibility squarely on the organic grower. On page 45 of the 554-page rule is the following: ”fields and farm parcels must also have distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones to prevent contact with the land or crop by prohibited substances applied to adjoining land (emphasis added).”

The USDA rule codifies a well accepted farming practice. Because farming is conducted in the open, anyone who chooses to grow a crop that will command a higher price in the market must absorb the added cost of producing that crop. In the case of organic crops, which fetch higher prices, the added cost of buffer strips must be borne by the organic grower.

Though this may seem harsh, imagine the chaos that would result if farmers changing their crops for more profit, for example growing plants for pharmaceuticals, demanded that their neighbors be responsible for maintaining the purity of their high-profit operations.

Unfortunately, the fight over who, if anyone, should be responsible for buffer strips is detracting from the more mportant task of encouraging farmers to work together to ?resolve conflicts.?The Maine Department of Agriculture has developed a ”Plan for Co-Existence.” It recognizes that different farming practices have different needs, and it gives steps farmers can take to minimize conflicts.?In 2006, the Pew Initiative on Biotechnology conducted a two-day workshop on co-existence. One of the conclusions: ”Co- existence is a journey, not a destination.” It’s time for Maine farmers to begin that journey.


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