Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

The Good News
Genetic Engineering
Toxic Metals

Origin of Livestock Rule Finally Moving Forward
By Sarah Alexander

MOFGA has positive news to report on our work to fight for organic integrity: The USDA is taking action to finalize the Dairy Origin of Livestock (OOL) rule. This rule is a critical step in ensuring that all organic dairy producers play by the same rules, and once the rule is implemented, it will ensure that conventional dairy herds can be transitioned to organic only one time, rather than the continuous transition that some certifiers currently allow. We strive to certify to the highest standards and to the original intention of the USDA National Organic Program, and MOFGA Certification Services has always enforced this rule as it was originally intended. However, confusion has existed almost as long as this rule has been around. The USDA tried to fix this in 2015 through a rulemaking process, but under Secretary Perdue in 2016, the rule was shelved and was never finalized.

Since this rule was shelved, organic dairy has been struggling with oversupply, primarily from a number of large western dairies that have come online in the last few years. Some of these dairies are continuously transitioning conventional cows, spending up to $1,200 less per calf to raise it conventionally versus organically. The organic community has been pressuring Perdue to take urgent action since 2017, but Congress had to get involved to get USDA to finally act.

Maine’s congressional delegation played an important role in getting the USDA to act. Rep. Pingree, an organic farmer herself, has been a tremendous ally of the organic community, and works closely with MOFGA on policy initiatives that impact our farmers. This year she was the lead sponsor of language that she was able to get into the appropriations bill mandating that USDA must finalize the OOL rule.

I met with Maine’s full congressional delegation in D.C. in April and asked them all to include this bill language in their appropriations request. Due to the work that MOFGA and all of you have done over the years, our congressional delegation, which includes Reps. Pingree and Golden and Sens. King and Collins, all included this OOL language as part of the appropriations request. The bill language passed through the House in early summer, but it seemed uncertain it would get through the Senate. Collins sits on the appropriations committee, and we knew if we could show her how important this was to Maine dairies, we would have a good chance of getting the language in the Senate appropriations bill.

With your help, MOFGA collected more than 475 petitions to Collins on this issue. We worked with Organic Valley and the Maine Organic Milk Producers to get Collins to visit Rainbow Valley Farm in Sidney, owned by the Bragg family. They gave her an excellent tour and education about organic dairies, and we delivered the petitions to her. She was very receptive and took our message back to D.C. This fall, with Collins’ help, the Senate has included this bill language in the appropriations bill, although it has yet to pass. But the pressure from Congress has been enough to get USDA to finally start to finish this rule. The USDA has opened a 60-day comment period on the OOL rule that closes on Dec. 2. MOFGA is collecting and will be submitting comments. We hope you’ll continue to take action on this issue by signing our petition at

While sometimes it feels like progress can be slow, we know that if we keep working together in Maine, and in coalition with our allied groups nationally, we can continue to keep the organic standards strong.

Veggies For All (VFA) has been an important Unity-area hunger relief effort since 2007. Founded by young farmers as a food bank farm, the project grew produce for food pantry and soup kitchen partners for over a decade. It has operated under the banner of Unity Barn Raisers and, most recently, Maine Farmland Trust, and has partnered extensively with the Volunteer Regional Food Pantry and Unity College. In the summer of 2019, UBR re-adopted VFA.

UBR elected to reorganize and rebrand VFA as primarily a gleaning program in order to limit the need for extensive resources required to continue farming; to maximize synergy with existing UBR programs; due to the changing local farming environment in our community; and to increase financial sustainability. The program works with area farmers and gardeners to redirect unused/surplus produce into area hunger relief programs and drop-off sites to increase access to those needing fresh, nutritious food. UBR works closely with the Volunteer Regional Food Pantry, The Open Door Soup Kitchen in Unity, area churches, and drop-off sites including Unity Community Center, low-income and elderly housing in Unity, Inland Family Care in Unity and other local partners.

Anyone who is interested in volunteering (field harvesting, transporting produce) or in donating produce to the gleaning effort can contact UBR at 948-9005 or [email protected]. UBR can arrange a time for drop-off, can facilitate pickup, or occasionally can provide supervised volunteers to harvest from fields. Donations are tax-deductible.

Great Works Regional Land Trust (GWRLT) is using goats to rehabilitate ecosystems damaged by invasive plants on conservation properties, thanks to a $5,885 grant from the Davis Conservation Foundation and an “Adopt-A-Goat” fundraiser. The Nurturing Habitat Restoration: Invasive Species Mapping and Control project contracted with Normandeau Associates, Inc., of Bedford, New Hampshire, which mapped invasive species on five GWRLT properties. Four goats from Just Browsing Land Management consumed the plants last summer, supplemented by strategic mowing and future goat grazing.

In other goat news, goats from Scapegoats in Kennebunk helped clear Japanese knotweed from Yerxa Park in South Portland this summer. The city covered the area with landscape fabric once the goats ate the top growth. This was the second year the city used goats to control invasives. (“Great Goat! Grazing goats help clear invasive plants from South Portland park,” By Shannon Moss, News Center Maine, Sept. 9, 2019; “Land Trust thanks four-legged summer interns,” Great Works Regional Land Trust press release, Seacoast Online, Sept. 5, 2019)

A University of Vermont study shows how the similarity of plant odors and phylogenetic relatedness can predict insect repellency. Researchers applied this concept to swede midge, a tiny fly that is becoming a major problem in cabbage-family crops in Canada and the Northeast. Larval midge feeding results in distorted growth, such as headless broccoli and cauliflower, puckered leaves and brown scarring. Damage is not observable until midges have dropped off the plant. Where well established, the midge can cause 100 percent crop losses. Conventional growers use neonicotinoid insecticides, implicated in honeybee decline, to combat the pest.

Chase Stratton, who recently completed his Ph.D. at UVM, identified essential oils from 18 plants of varied relatedness to brassica host crops. He and Yolanda Chen of UVM's Department of Plant and Soil Science hypothesized that oils from plants that are more distantly related to brassicas would have more diverse odors and be more repellent. They found that female midges were less likely to lay eggs on broccoli plants that had been treated with essential oils, compared with untreated plants, and avoided flying toward certain oils more than others. Essential oils of garlic, spearmint, thyme, eucalyptus lemon and cinnamon bark most effectively repelled the midge. Chen said, “[A]s we go along the family tree, plants that are more distantly related from the host plant are generally more repellent.” Also, odors that were more chemically different were more likely to be repellent – although spearmint oil, which was most repellent, had odors more similar to the brassica crop.

“For swede midge,” said Stratton, “garlic appears to be one of the most promising repellents, particularly because certified organic products using garlic are already available for growers.” (“Garlic on Broccoli: A Smelly Approach to Repel a Major Pest,” Univ. of Vt., July 23, 2019)

Maine schools can now give food scraps to pig farmers, thanks to a bill passed by the Maine Legislature that took effect in September. Individuals or institutions can now donate food scraps to a pig farm for use as feed even if they don’t know the farmer’s licensure status. Maine hog farmers do have to have a license to feed food waste to pigs, and the waste must be cooked to prevent spreading disease. (“A solution for food waste in schools: Give it to the pigs,” RFD TV, Oct. 14, 2019)

Scientists at the University of California, Davis, found that compost is a key to storing carbon in semi-arid cropland soils. The 19-year study compared soil carbon changes in conventional, cover-cropped and compost-added plots of corn-tomato and wheat-fallow cropping systems at depths to about 6 feet. They found that conventional soils neither release nor store much carbon, and cover cropping conventional soils, while increasing carbon in the top 12 inches, can lose significant amounts of carbon below that depth. When both compost and cover crops were added in the organic-certified system, soil carbon content increased 12.6 percent during the study, or about 0.7 percent annually – far more than would be calculated if only the surface layer were measured.

Study coauthor Jessica Chiartas said, “The soil represents a huge mass of natural resource under our feet. If we’re only thinking about farming the surface of it, we’re missing an opportunity. Carbon is like a second crop.”

Nationwide, many studies that investigated carbon change in the top foot of soil found that cover-cropped systems store carbon. The UC Davis study also found gains in the surface but, deeper down, enough carbon was released from cover-cropped systems that it resulted in an overall net loss.

“There are other benefits to cover crops that farmers may still enjoy, but in our systems, storing carbon is not necessarily one of them,” said coauthor Nicole Tautges. “We’d make more progress by incentivizing compost.”

The researchers did not compare composted systems without cover crops, but suspect the compost helped sequester carbon despite the cover crop, a notion they intend to investigate.

Carbon has to filter through soil microbes to turn into stabilized forms in soil. Compost provides the carbon as well as vital nutrients for those microbes to function effectively.

“One reason we keep losing organic matter from soils is that our focus is on feeding the plant, and we forget the needs of others who provide important services in soil like building organic carbon,” said senior author Kate Scow. “We need to feed the soil, too.”

Having a balanced diet can make the difference between how much carbon stays in the soil versus how much is released as carbon dioxide, Scow said. When their diet is out of balance, microbes mine missing nutrients from existing soil organic matter, resulting in a loss of carbon. The authors think that deep in the soil, cover-crop roots provided carbon but not the other nutrients needed to stabilize it. (“Compost Key to Sequestering Carbon in the Soil,” By Kat Kerlin, UC Davis, August 14, 2019)

Four case studies from American Farmland Trust show that healthier soil brings economic benefits to farmers and environmental benefits to society. The studies, developed in partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, focused on corn-soybean production in Illinois and Ohio, almond production in California, and a rotation of sweet corn, alfalfa, and corn for silage or grain in New York. The farmers featured implemented soil health practices such as no-till or strip-till, nutrient management, cover crops, compost, and mulching.

The four farmers saw yield increases from 2 to 22 percent that they attributed in part to soil health practices. The average return on investment was 176 percent and ranged from 35 to 343 percent. The study accounted for other factors that increased yield, such as improved seed varieties and increased seeding rates, but all four showed that soil health investments led to economic gain.

The four farms had improved water quality and reduced soil and water runoff. Nitrogen runoff was reduced by 40 to 98 percent, phosphorus by 74 to 92 percent, and sediment from 76 to 96 percent. Total greenhouse gas emission reductions ranged from 16 to 560 percent. (“New American Farmland Trust-NRCS case studies show soil health practices increase farm profitability,” American Farmland Trust, July 30, 2019; “Quantifying Economic and Environmental Benefits of Soil Health,” American Farmland Trust)

Data spanning six years for 180 hives in France showed that bee colonies in areas farmed organically had 37 percent more brood, 20 percent more adult bees and 53 percent greater honey production than those in areas farmed conventionally. The increased brood may be due to a wider diversity of pollen sources or lower mortality from local application of pesticides. The surge in honey reserves may reflect greater availability of melliferous flowers over a greater area where bees forage. (“Organic farming enhances honeybee colony performance,” press release, The French National Centre for Scientific Research, June 26, 2019; “Effects of organic farming on seasonal dynamics of honeybee colony performance,” Dimitry Wintermantel et al., Journal of Applied Ecology, June 26, 2019)



Poultry purchased in Pennsylvania between 2008-2017 and labeled as antibiotic-free or organic was half as likely to contain multidrug resistant Salmonella as conventionally raised poultry. Of the 2,733 samples of conventionally raised poultry, 10.2 percent were contaminated with Salmonella compared with 5.3 percent of poultry samples labeled antibiotic-free. Of 280 Salmonella cultures from conventionally raised poultry, 55 percent were resistant to three or more antibiotics compared with 28 percent from poultry raised without antibiotics. Another study found that almost one-third of meat and poultry contaminated with Salmonella harbored antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (“Antibiotic-Free or Organic Poultry Half as Likely to Be Contaminated with Multidrug-Resistant Salmonella, New Research Finds, IDWeek, Oct. 2, 2019)

A study compared the release during storms of antibiotic resistance genes, fecal indicator bacteria and sediment from plots amended with raw manure or manure-derived composts originating from dairy cows that were or were not treated with antibiotics (pirlimycin and cephapirin). Fields receiving dairy manure-derived amendments, whether composted or not, were likely to release more antibiotic resistance genes and fecal indicator bacteria into runoff relative to fields treated with inorganic fertilizer. Composting manure did not reduce antibiotic resistance genes in runoff. The researchers say that appropriate runoff and sediment management could be critical in controlling the spread of antibiotic resistance on farms, potentially on par with judicious antibiotic use, appropriate manure treatment and harvest wait times. (“Fecal Indicator Bacteria and Antibiotic Resistance Genes in Storm Runoff from Dairy Manure and Compost-Amended Vegetable Plots,” by Kyle Jacobs et al., Journal of Environmental Quality, July 11, 2019)



A U.N. report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – more than 100 experts from 52 countries – says that a half-billion people live in places turning into desert, and soil is being lost 10 to 100 times faster than it is forming. Climate change will worsen those threats, shrinking the food supply in several areas at once and possibly increasing migration, as has been happening from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to the United States. Addressing these issues could include making land more productive through better soil management, diversifying crops, wasting less food, and shifting diets away from meat. (“Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns,” By Christopher Flavelle, The New York Times, August 8, 2019)

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

Research published by officials of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has discovered that foreign DNA can be introduced inadvertently into the genomes of gene-edited animals. Gene-editing techniques are widely considered to be more precise than older GE techniques, but the FDA research shows that foreign DNA can become incorporated, unknown to the developer. The findings are a significant blow to the argument that gene editing should not be subject to regulation, and they vindicate the EU approach of regulating gene-edited organisms as GMOs.

In this case cattle edited to be hornless were produced in 2016 by Recombinetics, Inc., of St. Paul, Minnesota, which reported detecting no unexpected alterations, such as insertions or deletions of DNA, as a result of gene editing. It concluded that “our animals are free of off-target events” and argued that “it is hard to see why the process of genome editing to introduce defined genetic changes should be regulated.”

The FDA found that one calf had an unintended duplication of the polled gene locus, and the DNA of both calves contained two antibiotic resistance genes, along with other gene sequences of bacterial origin. The inadvertently introduced bacterial sequences were close to the editing site. Of the two antibiotic resistance genes, one confers Neomycin/Kanamycin resistance and the other Ampicillin resistance.

The FDA finding demonstrates that the gene-edited animals contain DNA unnatural to cattle, so the FDA has the authority to regulate, reports Independent Science News. (“FDA Finds Unexpected Antibiotic Resistance Genes in 'Gene-Edited' Dehorned Cattle,” By Jonathan Latham, Ph.D., and Allison Wilson, Ph.D., Independent Science News, Aug. 2, 2019; “A Cow, a Controversy, and a Dashed Dream of More Humane Farms,” by Megan Molteni, Wired, Oct. 8, 2019)

In October 2019 the FDA approved GE cotton with edible cottonseed for human consumption. Texas A&M University scientists developed the crop and hope it will be available commercially in about five years. They used RNA interference to silence a gene in order to limit production of the toxic chemical gossypol in the seed. (“U.S. regulators allow genetically modified cotton as human food source,” by Will Dunham, Reuters, Oct. 11, 2019)


Beginning in early 2020, California will ban the sale of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, linked to brain damage and other health defects in children. Growers will not be allowed to possess or use it after December 31, 2020. Chlorpyrifos is used primarily on crops such as alfalfa, almonds, citrus, cotton, grapes and walnuts. The EPA under President Obama proposed a federal ban on the insecticide in 2015, but the Trump administration quickly overturned the proposal. (“California Bans Popular Pesticide Linked To Brain Damage In Children,” by Richard Gonzales, NPR, Oct. 9, 2019)

Acute Insecticide Toxicity Loading (AITL) measures the total mass of insecticides used in or near U.S. agricultural land, their acute toxicity to insects and their environmental persistence. Researchers Michael DiBartolomeis et al. found that from 1992 to 2014, synthetic insecticide use shifted from predominantly organophosphates and N-methyl carbamates to a mix dominated by neonicotinoids and pyrethroids. Neonicotinoids are generally applied at lower rates per acre but are much more toxic to insects and generally persist longer in the environment. The researchers report a 48- and 4-fold increase during the study period for oral and contact toxicity, respectively. Neonicotinoids represented 61 to almost 99 percent of the total toxicity loading in 2014. Most of the increase occurred with corn and soy crops. Oral exposures have a relatively higher toxicity and greater likelihood to occur from residues in pollen, nectar, guttation water and other environmental sources. Neonicotinoids accounted for nearly 92 percent of total oral AITL over the study. The increase in pesticide toxicity loading over the past 26 years may threaten the health and survival of pollinators, beneficial insects, insectivorous birds and other insect consumers, say the researchers. (“An assessment of acute insecticide toxicity loading (AITL) of chemical pesticides used on agricultural land in the United States,” by Michael DiBartolomeis et al., PLOS ONE, August 6, 2019)

Researchers have found a strong connection between the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid and birth defects in white-tailed deer in South Dakota. Significantly high levels of imidacloprid occurred in spleens of fawns that died early, and higher concentrations of imidacloprid in reproductive tissues were associated with smaller spleens, genitals and livers. Wild deer killed in North Dakota had an average of 3.5 times more imidacloprid in their spleens than did captive deer used in the South Dakota study that were given the pesticide. (“SDSU study shows world’s most common pesticide a danger to deer,” by Nick Lowrey, South Dakota News Watch, October 16, 2019)

When researchers gave extremely small doses of imidacloprid to white-crowned sparrows during their spring migration through southern Ontario, birds given the highest dose ate less, lost 6 percent of their body mass within six hours, and stayed an average of 3.5 days longer at a stopover site on their migration route compared with birds that weren't dosed. The researchers say this may explain in part why migrant and farmland bird species are declining dramatically worldwide: Weight loss and migration delays may threaten their ability to survive and reproduce. Other studies have shown that neonicotinoid insecticides can kill red-legged partridges and reduce their offspring's immunity; reduce egg size and fertilization rate in red-legged partridge; and impact white-crowned sparrows' orientation during migration. (“Common insecticide threatens survival of wild, migrating birds,” by Brian Bienkowski, Environmental Health News, Sept. 13, 2019)

In spring 2019, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson led a bill to ban aerial herbicide spraying for deforestation, which turned into legislation requiring the Maine Board of Pesticides Control (BPC) to produce a report by February 2020 about using herbicides in forestry. The Maine Forest Service reports that in 2017, more than 12,000 acres of Maine woods were treated with herbicides and 22,722 acres of forest were clear cut – about one-third of that in Aroostook County. The BPC says that an average of under 15,000 acres of woods are treated with herbicides each year. (“How Maine plans to study the debated practice of aerial herbicide spraying of forests,” by Anthony Brino, Bangor Daily News, Sept. 14, 2019)


Immunologist and environmental health expert Claudia Miller of the University of Texas School of Medicine in San Antonio developed her Toxicant Induced Loss of Tolerance (TILT) theory to explain the increase in such multi-symptom illnesses as autism and Gulf War Syndrome. She suggests that many common chronic conditions come from daily exposure to very low doses of synthetic chemicals, with genetically susceptible people getting sick after a toxic exposure or exposures. That sensitization “tilts” their neurological and immune systems so that they lose tolerance to a range of chemicals common in low doses. When they avoid exposures, their health improves but may not recover completely. Miller notes that many toxicants can move directly from olfactory receptors in the nose into the limbic system of the brain. She developed a questionnaire that physicians can use to determine patients’ chemical sensitivity. (“Is the World Making You Sick?” by Jill Neimark, Nautilus, Sept. 2019)

More than three decades of data from the Kuakini Medical Center Honolulu Heart Program, which has tracked the health of about 8,000 Japanese American men on Oahu, suggests that occupational pesticide exposure may increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, even among healthy men. Previous research from the program linked occupational pesticide exposure to death. The researchers urged people who work with pesticides to wear protective equipment and regularly screen for heart disease. (“Heart Disease May Be Linked To Pesticide Exposure,” by Eleni Gill, Honolulu Civil Beat, Oct. 3, 2019; “Association Between Occupational Exposure to Pesticides and Cardiovascular Disease Incidence: The Kuakini Honolulu Heart Program,” by Zara K. Berg et al., Journal of the American Heart Assoc., September 25, 2019)

Germany will ban the weed killer glyphosate by the end of 2023 because it kills insect populations crucial for ecosystems and pollination of food crops. The herbicide was banned in Austria in July and is restricted in the Czech Republic, Italy and the Netherlands. France will phase it out by 2023. (“Germany to ban glyphosate to protect insects, biodiversity,” AFP, Sept. 4, 2019)

Toxic Metals

Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) tested 168 foods consumed by babies and toddlers from a wide range of brands and found toxic heavy metals in 95 percent of them. One in four baby foods had all four metals assessed – arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury. Even in the trace amounts found in food, these contaminants can alter the developing brain and erodes a child’s IQ, says HBBF, and research confirms widespread exposures and troubling risks for babies, including cancer. Despite the risks, no enforceable limits for toxic heavy metals exist for baby food, with a few exceptions.

Four of seven infant rice cereals tested contained inorganic arsenic (the toxic form of arsenic) exceeding FDA’s proposed action level of 100 parts per billion (ppb). Eighty-three percent of baby foods tested had more lead than the 1 ppb limit endorsed by public health advocates, and one of five foods tested had over 10 times that amount.

Arsenic contamination levels in rice cereal and juice are now 37 and 63 percent lower, respectively, than amounts measured a decade ago because companies have shifted growing and processing methods, switched plant varieties, changed irrigation practices and sourced from cleaner fields to comply with FDA guidance. But levels are still too high, says HBBF. Children under 2 years of age lose over 11 million IQ points from exposures to heavy metals in food, according to an an Abt Associates analysis commissioned by HBBF. Just 15 higher risk foods account for over half of that risk, including rice-based foods, juice and sweet potatoes.

Five safer alternatives to higher-risk baby foods have 80 percent less toxic metal residue, on average, according to HBBF: Substituting rice-free snacks for rice puff snacks; frozen banana or chilled cucumber for teething biscuits and rice rusks; other infant cereals such as multi-grain and oatmeal for infant rice cereal; tap water for fruit juice; and a variety of fruits and veggies that includes carrots, sweet potatoes and other choices rather than just carrots and sweet potatoes.

A new Baby Food Council comprised of leading baby food companies and supported by nonprofits including the Environmental Defense Fund and HBBF seeks to “reduce heavy metals in the companies’ products to as low as reasonably achievable using best-in-class management practices.”  (“Lowering the Levels: A Healthy Baby Food Initiative,” Healthy Babies, Bright Futures, Oct. 17, 2019; “95% of tested baby foods in the US contain toxic metals, report says,” by Sandee LaMotte, CNN, Oct. 17, 2019)