Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Will We Farm for Forty More Centuries?

Publications \ The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener \ Winter 1999-2000 \ English Editorial

By Jean English
Editor, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener

One night I get a call from Peter Vido, a New Brunswick grower with intense thoughts and feelings about scythes. He wants to write an article for The MOF&G. I prepare to give him my email address, and he says, “Wait a minute, my candle’s almost burned out.” Turns out, he’s sitting in a cabin in the woods, in near darkness with rain pelting down, a ways from his house but close enough to the phone lines for a hook-up. He doesn’t use a computer or have e-mail – he actually writes in longhand – but may know someone who does. The irony of the situation strikes me as he adjusts his candlelight and takes down my email address.

The next day, or so it seemed, I’m part of a panel discussing genetically engineered crops at Colby College. Dr. Michael Vayda, a biotech researcher and molecular biologist from the University of Maine, talks about all of the potential plusses of engineered crops: higher vitamin content in rice, biodegradable plastic production, and so on. He promotes the idea that engineered food crops are “substantially equivalent” to non-engineered crops. Dr. Russell Johnson, who is researching the genetics  of oats at Colby, says that maybe Bt crops (crops engineered to express the Bt toxin) wouldn’t be so bad if the toxin were expressed only in certain parts of the plant (and certainly not in the pollen) and only at certain times, such as when pests are feeding. He believes that the technology to do this will become available. My line, of course, is that engineered crops – at least those that are on the market now – are bad for the economy, bad for the environment, and may or may not be bad for the health of consumers. Since so few studies have been done on the latter, no one knows.

The day after the Colby panel, I’m writing up the talk that Will Bonsall gave at the Common Ground Fair, in which he told how the 1911 book Farmers of Forty Centuries influenced his planting plans and helped him see how interplanting can increase yields 20, 30, 40 percent. I’m also reading a piece by Dr. Elaine Ingham telling how balancing populations of microorganisms in the soil can suppress diseases to the point where fungicides aren’t needed, and nutrient inputs can be reduced drastically in the same way.

As the clock ticks closer to the year 2000, I feel like a footbridge spanning times of scythes and old-time wisdom and the new-found importance of soil life on the one hand and the potentials and pitfalls of transgenic crops on the other. I wonder – and sometimes fear to think – how the world will look in a decade. I hope for the best.

The best that came out of the Colby panel for me was hearing Vayda say that he believes that some transgenic crops create serious environmental and ecological problems. I had never dreamed that he and I would agree on anything, and am pleased to stop thinking of him as “Darth.”

We disagree on the health aspects. Too many agricultural and non-agricultural chemicals that were once “safe when used according to label directions” have been shown to cause cancer or other devastating health effects for me to accept the idea of “substantial equivalence” without substantial back-up by scientific research. If every cell in a plant has had its genome modified by a gene or genes from a completely unrelated species, how can it be “substantially equivalent” to one that hasn’t? Maybe genetic engineers consider one gene out of 80,000 or so insubstantial … I don’t go for the argument that since everybody in the United States is eating engineered foods now and nobody seems to be getting sick from them, they must be okay. In the first place, since these foods aren’t labeled, who knows what may be making a person sick? In the second place, we know that cancer can take decades to show up after exposure to carcinogens. What will show up after eating untested, unlabeled, engineered foods after a couple of decades? In the third place, what right does anyone have to use the general population as guinea pigs?

Vayda challenges me on the use of the term “Bt toxin,” pointing out that the so-called “toxin” is a protein that, he says, is not toxic to mammals. It degrades within 30 seconds or so in the acidic mammalian gut, he tells me, as others have told me before. I wonder, though – If I spend 10 or 15 minutes eating a Bt potato and a Bt corn muffin during the course of a meal, does that mean that I’m experiencing a series of 30-second intervals in which the Bt protein is a toxin to me? What if I drink milk with my meal, or the pH-8 water from my tap, as I eat the potato and corn product – Does that create a less acidic environment in which the protein can remain toxic longer? I wish someone would test this possibility – but not on me, or my family, or the rest of humanity.

The discussion at Colby was stimulating, and I look forward to meeting with Vayda again so that we can try to understand one another’s viewpoints further. In the meantime, I’ll be reading the white papers (supposedly papers written without bias, or color) that the University is putting out about genetic engineering.

Speaking of the University, many people there and elsewhere did not look kindly upon the cutting down of the genetically engineered corn there. This incident of GMO-related civil disobedience or ecoterrorism, depending on your point of view, did raise Mainers’ awareness that such crops are being grown in Maine, experimentally and commercially, since the mainstream media responded to the event by publishing news stories, editorials or letters to the editor almost every day for a couple of weeks after it occurred. Where were the media before the incident? This technology is poised to change the world, and has not received the attention it should have all along. Where has the University been with its public relations, or with its request for input from the public – and not just from the farming community, but from consumers as well – into its research program?

The corn incident has been criticized as vandalism, yet the fact that engineered pollen was free to contaminate crops and honey in the area has not been seen as trespass or vandalism by the critics. Odd. Pesticide drifts are not okay but drifts of engineered pollen are. Illogical. Generations have been brought up to believe that those who dumped tea into Boston Harbor were patriots – yet we are now told that those who dumped corn on University (publicly owned) ground are terrorists. Strange.

Still, I agree with the point Nancy Oden made at the Common Ground Fair: We can protest just as effectively without breaking the law, and we won’t risk being thrown into jail and losing opportunities to protest if our actions remain legal. Also, I think we’ll get more people “from the other side” to listen to us if we don’t antagonize them completely. For this reason, The MOF&G will carry an article on nonviolent civil disobedience in the next issue.

The engineered crops that are on the market now certainly have been harmful to the U.S. farm economy and have been a slap in the face to the last two decades of development of integrated pest management. One of the tenets of IPM is that no one pesticide is relied on for season-long control of a pest, yet Roundup Ready crops and Bt crops do just that. These crops were rushed to market too soon. They are a result not of the “Gene Revolution,” but, as MOFGA-member Jack Kertesz calls it, the “Greed Revolution.” Since these are the primary engineered crops being grown now, no harm should come from a moratorium on the planting of engineered crops.

As the clock ticks toward the year 2000, this is a critical time for a moratorium, a time to step back and evaluate genetic engineering thoroughly. If you agree and you want to help raise awareness of the issue, you can “get your 2 cents worth in” by ordering a $10 roll (postpaid, check or money order) of 500 stickers, duplicated below (but in color in real life), from Jim Gerritsen at 49 Kinney Rd., Bridgewater ME 04735 (800-829-9765). The Crown of Maine farmers coop in Northern Maine is putting these stickers on its potato bags, as well as a brief explanation of genetic engineering in the bag. Jim says to put the stickers on the bills you pay, on letters and packages, everywhere.

Peter Vido just called back – from a phone booth and in daylight. I hope you like his piece on scythes, because he promises a longer one when he returns from a scything tour of Europe.

Until 2000 …

MOF&G Cover Winter 1999-2000