Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

The Good News
Organic Issues
Genetic Engineering

The Good News

A review of more than 150 studies worldwide by the University of Maryland in collaboration with The Organic Center identifies the four organic techniques that most impact soil health and contribute to countering climate change: planting cover crops, applying combinations of organic inputs rather than a single type of organic fertilizer, increasing crop rotation diversity and length, and conservation tillage. (“Identifying the best of the best in organic agriculture,” The Organic Center, March 17, 2020;; “Promoting soil health in organically managed systems: a review,” by Katherine L. Tully and Cullen McAskill, Organic Agriculture, 2019;

Researchers from the University of Illinois analyzing results of 60 studies on cover cropping effects on soil microbial properties found that overall, cover cropping significantly increased soil microbial abundance by 27%, activity by 22% and diversity by 2.5% compared with bare fallow soils. Cover cropping effects were less pronounced under conditions such as continental climate, chemical cover crop termination and conservation tillage. Using herbicides to kill cover crops consistently reduced the microbial community. (“Do cover crops benefit soil microbiome? A meta-analysis of current research,” by NakianKim et al., Soil Biology and Biochemistry, March 2020;; “Illinois study shows universally positive effect of cover crops on soil microbiome,” by Lauren Quinn, Acres News, Feb. 27 2020;

Through its 12-acre, 72-plot Farming Systems Trial (FST) started in 1981, the Rodale Institute found that after a five-year transition period, organic yields are competitive with conventional; in drought years, organic yields are up to 40% higher than conventional; farm profits are three to six times higher for products from organically managed systems; organic management systems use 45% less energy than conventional and release 40% fewer carbon emissions into the atmosphere; organic systems leach no toxic chemicals into waterways; and organic systems build, rather than deplete, organic matter in soil, improving soil health. (“Longest Field Trials Show Organic Practices Yield Higher Returns than Chemical-Intensive Agriculture,” Beyond Pesticides, Feb. 24, 2019;

A study led by researchers at the University of Virginia and co-authored by The Organic Center shows that organic farming practices can help prevent the global accumulation of reactive nitrogen – a form of nitrogen (N) that can harm the environment – and scale back the presence of one of the major contributors to climate change. The research confirms that the biggest difference between organic and conventional farming is that organic farming helps reduce the buildup of reactive N by using recycled N sources such as compost and other natural soil amendments. Across all food groups, organic production releases around 50% less new reactive N to the environment.

Nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas, has over 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Agriculture, the largest human source of N2O, contributes over two-thirds of N2O emissions. Synthetic fertilizer application on conventional crops (especially corn and soybeans) is a leading source of N2O emissions in agriculture and leads to nitrate leaching into groundwater. (“Organic agriculture – the recycling bin for nitrogen,” The Organic Center, April 9, 2020;

An analysis by researchers from the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivieres of North American and European studies from 2004 to 2019 found that invertebrate and plant diversity was lower in urban lawns under increased mowing intensity while pest species (e.g. herbivorous beetle larvae and allergenic plants) were greater. (“Love Your Lawn? Let It Grow,” by Ashia Ajani, Sierra, Feb. 22, 2020;; “Ecological and economic benefits of low‐intensity urban lawn management,” by Christopher J. Watson et al., Journal of Applied Ecology, Dec. 29, 2019;

Organic Issues

MOFGA is part of a coalition of groups and organic producers that joined the Center for Food Safety in filing a lawsuit challenging the USDA's decision to allow hydroponic operations to be certified organic.

Sarah Alexander, MOFGA's executive director, notes that MOFGA has been active for nearly 50 years in creating and implementing strong organic standards based on building healthy soil. “We were involved in the writing of the Organic Foods Production Act, and our members expect the certified organic label to remain true to its intent of creating healthy food from healthy soil." The earliest organic certification programs (including MOFGA's) based their standards on this premise. However, in recent years some organic certification agencies other than MOFGA have allowed the organic certification of crops grown in hydroponic systems, which rely on fertilizer management as opposed to soil-building practices to produce crops.

MOFGA joined this lawsuit to ensure the organic standards continue to maintain healthy soil as the heart of organic production and because organic farms in Maine, particularly wild blueberry producers, are being negatively impacted by this misinterpretation of the standard. Organic cultivated blueberries, often produced hydroponically in the United States, continue to negatively impact the market for organic wild blueberries. Consumers are purchasing hydroponically produced blueberries labeled as organic without knowing they are not the same as the wild organic blueberries grown in Maine soil.

“The federal organic law unequivocally requires organic production to promote soil fertility,” Sylvia Wu, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety and counsel for plaintiffs, says. “USDA’s decision to allow mega-hydroponic operations that do nothing with soil to be sold as ‘organic’ violates the law.”

Other plaintiffs include Swanton Berry Farm, Full Belly Farm, Durst Organic Growers, Terra Firma Farm, Jacobs Farm del Cabo, Long Wind Farm and the organization OneCert.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which advises USDA on issues related to organic standards, has called on USDA to prohibit organic certification of hydroponics, but USDA has taken no action on that recommendation to date. In January 2019 the Center for Food Safety filed a legal petition requesting that USDA undertake rulemaking to disallow hydroponics in organic production; MOFGA endorsed the petition. That petition was denied, and this lawsuit is the next step in the process to hold USDA accountable to the intent of the organic standards.

"While sustainable hydroponic food production may have an important place in our food system, it is misleading for consumers for these products to be labeled as organic in the marketplace, since they clearly don't meet the intent of the organic standards," says Alexander. (MOFGA press release, March 4, 2020;; “Center for Food Safety Files Legal Action to Prohibit Hydroponics from Organic,” CFS press release, Jan. 16, 2020;


In February 2020 Rep. Chellie Pingree introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act, through which growers would use their soil to take up carbon dioxide to help slow global warming – by planting cover crops and reducing fertilizer use, for example. The goal is to make greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture net zero by 2040. The act would also quadruple federal funding for food and agriculture research, tweak management on all grazing land to maximize carbon capture, and reduce food waste by 75 percent. To qualify for crop insurance subsidies, farmers would have to show the USDA a soil health plan demonstrating their efforts to reduce erosion and sequester carbon in their soils. (“What Would It Take to Get More Farmers Fighting Climate Change?” by Tom Philpott, Mother Jones, Feb. 26, 2020;; “The Agriculture Resilience Act,”

More unusually hot days are affecting bumblebee occurrences across North America and Europe. Local extinction rates are increasing, and colonization, site occupancy rates and species richniss within a region are diminishing, independent of land-use change or condition. (“Climate change contributes to widespread declines among bumble bees across continents,” by Peter Soroye et al., Science, Feb. 7, 2020;

Maine’s climate is changing and the rate of change is increasing, according to researchers from UMaine and Acadia National Park’s Schoodic Instute. Their reports show that Maine is getting warmer and wetter, and the weather is increasingly variable, with periods of drought, intense storms and temperature swings. Coastal areas are warming faster than interior and northern Maine, and average minimum temperatures are increasing 60% faster than average maximum temperatures. The state’s average annual temperature increased 3.2 degrees F in the past 124 years, and Maine’s six warmest years on record have occurred since 1998. Our growing season is more than two weeks longer than it was in 1950, mostly due to later frosts in the fall. The Gulf of Maine has experienced a rate of warming that few marine ecosystems have encountered and is expected to continue warming at an above average rate. (“Maine is getting wetter, stormier and warmer, with coast warming fastest, researchers say,” by Bill Trotter, Bangor Daily News, Feb. 13, 2020;; “Maine’s Climate Future – 2020 Update,” by Ivan Fernandez et al., The University of Maine;


According to a fall 2019 Critical Insights omnibus poll of 600 Maine voters (sampling error +/-3.9% at the 95% confidence level), most worry about the effects of pesticides on the health of their children and pets. Released in January 2020 by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Maine Chapter (PSR Maine), the report highlights the serious risks to children’s health from pesticide exposure and shows strong support among Maine voters for government action to prevent exposure and protect the health of children and pets.

Dr. Sydney Sewall, a Maine pediatrician and member of PSRM, said, “Normal childhood behaviors, like crawling and putting things in their mouths, put our kids at more risk for dangerous pesticide exposures. Because children breath more rapidly and metabolize more quickly than adults, they absorb more of everything – the good and the bad.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that prenatal and childhood exposure to pesticides is associated with childhood cancers such as leukemia, learning disabilities and behavioral problems associated with medical conditions such as ADHD.

The PSR Maine report finds that 72% of Maine voters worry about their children’s and pets’ health from exposures to pesticides, and 71% say they support bans on pesticides that are applied only for cosmetic purposes. Only 9% believe that pesticides should be used without restrictions.

The use of pesticides continues to grow. In the United States alone, use of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup and some other herbicides) increased by more than 250-fold in the past four decades.

Currently 29 Maine municipalities have ordinances restricting pesticide use, while others, such as Scarborough, have pesticide policies.

PSR Maine supported LD 1888, An Act To Protect Children from Toxic Chemicals, which would ban the use of herbicides within 75 feet of schools, daycare centers and playgrounds. The bill was carried over to any special session of the 129th Legislature. (“Voters express strong support for state and local pesticide limits to protect children’s and pets’ health,” Physicians for Social Responsibility Maine press release, Feb. 5, 2020;

After a number of states, including California, banned sales of chlorpyrifos, Corteva Agriscience, the largest U.S. producer of the insecticide, said it will stop making the product for financial reasons. Other manufacturers continue to make the product, and it is allowed on imported foods. Studies link the product to lower birth weight, lower IQ, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other developmental issues in children and respiratory problems in adults. Health and environmental advocates, farmworkers and Latino civil rights groups have called for a ban for years. Other companies continue to make the product, and, while the Obama administration supported banning its use on food, the Trump administration reversed the previous administration’s ban, saying data are not sufficient to ban it. Chlorpyrifos has been banned for indoor use for more than a decade. Hawaii’s ban on chlorpyrifos begins in 2022, New York by late 2021, and the European Union is phasing out the insecticide. (“Trump has kept this controversial pesticide on the market. Now its biggest manufacturer is stopping production,” by Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post, Feb. 6, 2020;; “Latino groups vow to fight for ban on pesticide linked to children's health problems,” by Nicole Acevedo, NBC News, Feb. 11, 2020;

Researchers from Imperial College London have found that the part of the bumblebee brain called a mushroom body, which is involved in learning, grew less when bee larvae were exposed to nectar containing neonicotinoid insecticides. When treated larvae became adult bees, they still had smaller, functionally impaired brains and were less able to learn to associate a smell with a food reward. (“Pesticides impair baby bee brain development,” by Imperial College London, March 3, 2020;; “Insecticide exposure during brood or early-adult development reduces brain growth and impairs adult learning in bumblebees, Proceedings of the Royal Society B,

Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) secretly funded academic studies indicating “very severe impacts” on farming and the environment if its glyphosate herbicide were banned, an investigation has found. The National Farmers’ Union and others used the research to lobby successfully against a 2017 proposed ban on glyphosate in Europe. The journal Outlooks on Pest Management, which published the studies, says it will not retract or amend them. (“Revealed: Monsanto’s secret funding for weedkiller studies,” by Damian Carrington, March 12, 2020, The Guardian;

Nearly 70 percent of the fresh produce sold in the United States contains residues of potentially harmful chemical pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) 2020 Dirty Dozen list. Yet the worst produce commodity this year is not a fresh fruit or vegetable but a dried one – raisins.

The EWG’s annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce includes the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen, based on USDA test data of pesticide residues in 47 popular fruits and vegetables. Before testing, USDA washes, scrubs and peels produce as consumers would.  

This year USDA tested raisins as well, so they are also included in the EWG report. For non-organic raisins, 99% of samples had residues of at least two pesticides; on average, each sample was contaminated with more than 13 pesticides, and one sample had 26 pesticides.

The neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos was detected on 5% (34 out of 670) of samples of conventional raisins and 6% (five out of 86) of organic raisin samples, and bifenthrin on 77% or samples overall ( and on 78% of organic raisins). The EWG says, “These pesticides [chlorpyrifos and bifenthrin] cannot be used in the production of organic crops, so it is unclear why organic raisins are contaminated with these pesticides.”

These are the Dirty Dozen, starting with the worst and with rankings based on the percent of samples with pesticides and on the number and amount of pesticides on all samples and on individual samples:
    •    strawberries
    •    spinach
    •    kale
    •    nectarines
    •    apples
    •    grapes
    •    peaches
    •    cherries
    •    pears
    •    tomatoes
    •    celery
    •    potatoes

According to the EWG, more than 90% of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines and kale tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides, and multiple samples of kale showed 18 different pesticides.

These are the Clean Fifteen:
    •    avocadoes
    •    sweet corn
    •    pineapple
    •    onions
    •    papayas
    •    frozen sweet peas
    •    eggplant
    •    asparagus
    •    cauliflower
    •    cantaloupe
    •    broccoli
    •    mushrooms
    •    cabbage
    •    honeydew melon
    •    kiwi

The EWG notes that most pesticide residues the USDA finds fall within government-mandated restrictions, but that legal limits aren’t always safe. The EPA tolerance levels help agency regulators determine whether farmers are applying pesticides properly – not, for example, to set levels to protect children who eat produce. A recent EWG investigation found that the EPA failed to add the Food Quality Protection Act-mandated children’s health safety factor to allowable limits for almost 90 percent of the most common pesticides.

The EWG recommends that whenever possible, consumers purchase organic versions of produce on the Dirty Dozen list. When organic versions are unavailable or unaffordable, EWG advises eating fresh produce, even if conventionally grown. The organization also notes that a small amount of sweet corn, papaya and summer squash sold in the United States is produced from genetically engineered seeds and recommends buying organic varieties of these crops if you want to avoid genetically engineered produce.

The USDA does not test for glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup and some other herbicides and the most heavily used pesticide in the United States. Tests commissioned by EWG found high levels of glyphosate in many oat-based breakfast products marketed to children. (“EWG’s 2020 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” Environmental Working Group press release, March 25, 2020; EWG’s 2020 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™EWG’s 2020 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™

Genetic Engineering
Note: Organic production does not allow the use of genetically engineered (GE or GMO – genetically modified organism) inputs.

To attempt to control diamondback moths, genetically engineered (GE) male moths were released in a field trial in New York state. Oxitec, a British biotech company, says that an engineered gene switches on only in female offspring, causing them to die soon after hatching. Males pass the gene on to offspring. Since half of the offspring (the females) die in each generation, Oxitec expects that the lethal gene will disappear within a few generations, so new GE males would have to be released again. Diamondback moth larvae eat the leaves of brassica plants. They have become resistant to many pesticides. (“Male moths genetically modified to kill females released in the wild,” by Michael LePage, New Scientist, Jan. 29, 2020;


The Washington state Supreme Court reinstated a record $18 million judgment and penalty against the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) for circumventing campaign finance laws by intentionally shielding names of food companies contributing millions to defeat the 2013 Washington ballot Initiative 522, which would have required labeling of genetically engineered foods and seeds sold in Washington stores. Major food companies, including Pepsico, Nestle USA, Coca Cola and General Mills, funneled $14 million into the GMA’s "Defense of Brands Strategic Account." The GMA used $11 million of that in its "No on 522" campaign, leading to a narrow defeat of the iniative. (“Wash. state Supreme Court reinstates $18 million penalty against Grocery Manufacturers Association,” By Joel Connelly, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 16, 2020;