President's Letter - Time to ring up Washington
Earlier this year, MOFGA wrote to each of our representatives in Congress, asking them to cosponsor the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act [HR 3377 and S 2080]. Our letter, reprinted in the last issue of the MOF&G, traced the history of Maine citizens' concern and legislative initiatives on GE labeling, back to 1993, before a single genetically engineered food or food ingredient had yet hit the supermarket shelves. We asked our senators and congressmen to study, and be guided by, the 1996 report of the Maine Commission to Study Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Issues, in which a stakeholder group from a wide variety of backgrounds reached consensus that there should be a federal requirement of labeling GE food, and should be a mandatory requirement of premarket notification for development of those foods [there still isn't]. We pointed to the innumerable polls that confirm consumers' desire to know whether their food has been engineered, and the scientific fallacies behind the FDA's position that engineered foods can be comfortably assumed to be "Generally Recognized as Safe" [fallacies that since have been recognized by a National Academy of Sciences panel report which called for more safety testing of GE foods]. We pointed out that the FDA's secret, confessed intent to "foster" the biotech industry was, in this instance, clearly inconsistent with its legislative mandate to "promote honest and fair dealing in the interest of consumers."
With our state having been, all along, in the forefront of concern and activism on the issue of genetically engineered food, one would think that at least one of our representatives in Congress would join Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Sen. Barbara Boxer, lead sponsors of these bills, and the dozens of other distinguished congresspeople and senators who signed on as cosponsors. However, as of this writing, not one of them has stepped up to bat.
We have received gracious and polite responses from Senators Snowe and Collins, and Congressmen Allen and Baldacci. Each of them thanked us for our letter, and assured us that they appreciated hearing from us. Each of them attempted to demonstrate that they were well informed on the subject. Tom Allen takes the prize for the most well-researched response, in that he volunteered that he was aware that organic farmers "have additional concerns not related only to labeling, specifically genetic drift." Allen was aware of the risks of genetic cross-pollination, as well as the risk that GE Bt crops present for development of insect resistance to Bt sprays. Congratulations, Tom! Susan Collins gave us the least well-researched and relevant response, saying that she was "aware of no Senate bill that addresses labeling or safety testing of genetically engineered food in particular," and focusing on a discussion of her work on the issue of food-borne illnesses from unsafe food imports.
However, in the end, none of our representatives agreed to cosponsor the bills; they just promised to continue to study the issue.
Here's where you come in. It's time to let them know how you feel. Call them up and ask them why they haven't taken a stand on this issue. You might want to point out that since MOFGA's letter went out, there's a new development that might dramatically change the complexion of food, and politics, and food politics, in Maine. A move is afoot (see "Maine Referendum Campaign on Genetic Engineering" in the News section of this MOF&G) to get signatures for a citizen's referendum to require GE labeling in Maine. Getting the requisite signatures should be a breeze in this presidential election year. From there on, biotech industry money will be pouring into Maine to finance a campaign of fear and obfuscation, and the battle will rage. Even the brave initiators of this referendum admit that they'd rather see this happen on the national level, with uniform labeling requirements for all. Without the support and leadership of Maine's own Congressional delegation on GE labeling, it's easy to see why Mainers are turning to exercise their referendum rights.
I've included email addresses here; however, my general understanding is that phone calls get much more attention. Politicians get as many as 5000 emails a month.
Susan Collins: 202-224-2523 or 207-945-0417; Senator@collins.senate.gov Olympia Snowe: 202-224-5344 or 207-945-0432; Olympia@snowe.senate.gov Tom Allen: 202-225-6116 or 207-774-5019; firstname.lastname@example.org John Baldacci: 202-225-6306 or 207-942-6935 email@example.com
While you're at it, you might ask Collins and Snowe why they haven't joined Allen and Baldacci in supporting The Conservation and Reinvestment Act (C.A.R.A.), which would makes millions of dollars available in Maine for land and marine resources conservation.
--Sharon Tisher, President, MOFGA
Voluntary Labeling is Not Enough
Proposed FDA rules, announced as we went to press, for voluntary labeling of foods that are NOT genetically engineered don’t in any sense change the urgency of passing this legislation. With voluntary labeling, the vast majority of foods in the marketplace will still be unlabeled, and we’ll still be buying foods in the dark.
Take Your Time
Perspectives matter. Last year, the United Plant Savers printed a piece that discussed the various ages to which plants (or their clonal descendants) can live. I was struck by the notion that a clump of lilies- of-the-valley can live for 670 years. As someone who was fortunate enough to inherit a planting, I realized that the ancestors of the plants on the edge of our yard could easily have been planted by the people who built the original farmhouse 200 years ago. The length of time that some of our activities will have an impact harkens to the "seventh generation" rule: Think about the results seven generations into the future.
Judging by the growing interest in organic foods, among farmers and food buyers, we're really starting to see the results of those first seeds that were planted 30 years ago (a full generation). The last certification applications for the year are trickling in, but it looks like we'll have about 230 farms, or 3.3% of the farms in Maine, certified as organic in 2000. That's a major change from 1971, when we first certified about 15 farms, but just the first step in the process.
The challenge ahead is for us to continue to grow, planting seeds and spreading our roots, without losing track of our values. As you'll see in Eric Sideman's column this month, the USDA is starting to understand one part of organic, the part that relates to production systems, but it still hasn't grasped the scale and social impact of the kind of organic agriculture practiced in Maine. Operating a farm that feeds your family and your community is far outside the mainstream of American agriculture; organic is another step entirely.
In the months ahead, I hope you'll keep planting those seeds and trees, realizing that the impact of what we do today will stretch for generations into the future. And I'd like to thank, again, those people who had the vision that helped us all get started down this path years ago. Enjoy your gardens. Plant some lilies-of-the-valley.
Bad Air, Good Soil
Are your children breathing clean air? This question has come front and center in our small town of Lincolnville, as a very toxic fungus (Stachybotrys chartarum), harmful bacteria, high CO2 concentrations and asbestos have been found in our school during air quality testing and building inspection in preparation for renovating the school. Stachybotrys has become a household word in town, and parents, school staff, students and taxpayers have become unnerved by the extent of the air quality problems and health problems here. Note that Stachybotrys can also grow in moistened hay and straw as well as in schools; these materials should not be handled in closed environments.
I relate this issue because I doubt that our school is unique and because many MOFGA members have children in school. Some Maine schools have had Stachybotrys in the past; others will find it in the future.
I believe the air quality in every school should be tested at least annually, probably after the school has been closed for a few days during a vacation. Don’t wait to test until your teachers or students have been complaining of health problems for months or years. Don’t wait until you’re remodeling. Just do it. And don’t assume that public schools are the only places with air quality problems. Stachybotrys loves cellulose and moisture wherever it finds them. It thrives in chronically damp cellulose insulation, wood and paper products. It can occur after a flood, when a sewer backs up, a roof leaks or a pipe breaks.
The one thing that has helped me keep my sanity as I’ve learned about these problems at our school and wondered how long my children have been exposed to them is: soil. Digging holes for young Christmas trees is excellent therapy. The hard physical work and the delight at handling rich, healthy soil has fed my soul.
Soil. Who would have thought that even in the year 2000 we’d still be learning so much about soil and increasing our appreciation for it? The information on the soil foodweb, on soil organic matter, and on soil testing that was presented at the Agricultural Trades Show and at MOFGA’s Spring Growth Conference was educational and inspiring. I hope you enjoy reading about it in this issue of the paper.
On People Saying They Can’t Afford Organic Food
Say: What if you regard it as a donation to the agricultural workers, land, wildlife, neighbors, water supply, children’s health and everyone’s nervous system and hormone balance?
Say: How much more does it ***really*** cost? (Percentage-’wise’, there’s a great variation.)
Ask yourself: How likely can we say that the cost will come down with market growth--***or*** does the extra attention and complexity mean that to support the farmer, the price for organic ***should*** be more?
Say: We should be paying more for all food, if we can get that money directly to the farmers and workers, so that they can earn a living wage.
Ask: What do U.S. people pay for food as a percentage of their income compared with people in the rest of the world (including people in "developed" countries)?
Ask: Can we afford "cheap food" if it comes with poverty, environmental damage and ill health?
Correction: In the article "Colson on Cole Crops" in the March-May issue of The MOF&G,* we referred to a companion piece on the importance of vitamin K in the diet. That piece, "Did You Get Enough K Today," was omitted from that paper but is in the news section of this issue.