Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
1999 Keynote Speakers & Teach-In

Fair News Archive \ 1999 Keynotes & Teach-In

Keynote Speakers
Michael Sligh
Brian Donahue
Public Policy Teach-In: Rid Your School of Toxic Pesticides

Keynote Speakers

Genes and the Food Supply

Michael Sligh of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI)

Saturday – 11:00 – Amphitheater

A walk through the Common Ground Country Fair Exhibition Hall never fails to lift the spirits. The vibrancy and diversity of Maine’s organic harvest speaks volumes about our dedicated farmers and gardeners. Everyone should spend a good while savoring the sights, smells and even the occasional taste in the great hall. But, be sure to walk over to the Amphitheater at 11:00 on Saturday to hear about the latest developments in [read: threats to] our food supply. Michael Sligh of the sustainable agriculture group RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International) will provide a sobering assessment of agribusiness run amok.

During the past two decades, scientists have learned how to breed plants and animals in ways that were never before possible as they have inserted genes from one species of plant, animal, bacteria, etc., into other, unrelated organisms. Pigs have been engineered to contain human genes; potatoes to contain bacterial genes; corn, cotton and soy to contain genes that render them resistant to herbicides, so that increasing amounts of herbicides can be used to kill weeds in crop fields. Drastic changes in the genetic makeup of plants and animals have been made and marketed with no previous testing of their effects on the environment, on human health, or on farm economies. Since their release into the environment beginning a few years ago, however, harmful effects have been seen (see Jean English’s editorial in this issue of The MOF&G).

The genetic workings of plants have also been tampered with so that various physiological processes can be “controlled” – i.e., turned on and off, often with yet more agricultural chemicals. Fruit ripening can be slowed, for example. The most far-reaching example of this technology, to date, has been dubbed “Terminator Technology” by Rural Advancement Foundation International. In this case, plants are engineered so that they will not produce seed – and so that growers cannot save seed but have to buy it from seed companies every year.

In Maine, citizens and nonprofit groups, such as MOFGA, have tried to have legislation enacted to require labeling of genetically engineered foods, but without success. Labeling would have enabled consumers to “vote with their pocketbooks” and to protect their own health by giving them choices. Recently, our neighbors in New Hampshire came close to taking a bold stand against the Terminator Technology. On June 30, a legislative committee debated a bill that would have banned the growing or transporting of Terminator seeds in that state. The state Senate had ap­proved the bill earlier that month. Despite overwhelming public support for the ban, the bill failed in the House, where a single dissenting legislator blocked the ban. Now a committee will study the threat of Terminator to biodiversity and agriculture in New Hampshire.

After hearing Michael’s address, you may wish to wander back to the Exhibition Hall or stroll through the Farmers’ Market and thank the folks there for providing safe, delicious and healthy food for us. The only ways you can avoid buying genetically engineered foods now are to grow your own or to buy certified organic produce.

Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI)

Rural Advancement Foundation International is an international civil society organization headquartered in Canada. It is dedicated to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and to the socially responsible development of technologies that are useful to rural societies. It is concerned about the loss of agricultural biodiversity, and the intellectual property rights of farmers and how loss of those rights affects food security.

For more information: RAFI-USA, PO Box 640, Pittsboro, NC, 27312. Phone: 919-542-1396. Fax: 919-542-0069. Web: In Canada: RAFI, 110 Osborne Street S, Suite 202, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3L 1Y5, CANADA. Phone: 204-453-5259. Fax: 204-925-8034.

Tools to Fight Sprawl

Professor Brian Donahue of Brandeis University on Protecting Open Spaces and Using Common Lands Productively

Sunday – 11:00 – Youth Enterprise Zone

Maine is not immune to the adverse effects of suburban sprawl. We are witnessing it in many areas of the state, and many of us are wondering just what to do about it. Should we try to pass legislation restricting development? Should we focus on rebuilding city centers? Should we flee to greener pastures? Brian Donahue has dedicated his professional life to the topic of using common lands productively as a training grounds for ecologically sound farming and forestry. Donahue will speak about his work, and his new book, Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town, on Sunday at 11:00 in the Youth Enterprise Zone.

Dr. Donahue is an Assistant Professor of American Environmental Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He holds a B.A., an M.A. and a Ph.D. in history from Brandeis and has taught extensively in environmental history and issues in sustainable agriculture. He has been Director of Land’s Sake, a community farm in Weston, Massachusetts, where he maintained a commercial-scale community farm and forestry program, including a 1500-acre town forest timber harvesting program, a 25-acre market garden, a maple syrup operation, and a flock of sheep.

From 1994 through 1997, Donahue was Director of Education at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. There he taught graduate-level interns, edited the 40-page Land Report journal, and organized an annual Prairie Festival – an eclectic gathering of about 1,000 sustainable farming folks that has taken place in Kansas every Memorial Day since 1976.

In public speaking engagements Donahue often tracks the ecological footprints of human dwellers in what have become the suburbs west of Boston – from seventeenth-century Native foragers through Yankee farmers to twentieth-century commuters and consumers. What was the environmental impact of each step in this cultural journey? How can mapping the history of land use help guide suburbanizing communities in caring for the land today?

In Reclaiming the Commons, Donahue provides an account of how one community in Massachusetts has combated suburban sprawl, protected a large part of the landscape as common land, and enjoyed the land productively in an ecologically sustainable way. Donahue urges people to go beyond the simple preservation of space and to think about how their lives can be intertwined sustainably with the land. He emphasizes the importance of establishing community farms on the suburban landscape.

Noted farming writer and environmentalist Wes Jackson said of Donahue’s book, “Here at last is a book dedicated to getting people in the suburbs to engage with their land.”

Copies of Reclaiming the Commons will be on sale at his talk.


Public Policy Teach-In: Rid Your School of Toxic Pesticides

Our schools should be places where our children can learn and play safely, yet many of the chemicals used in and around schools can be toxic, especially to children. These can include herbicides that may be used on playing fields, insecticides in kitchens and cafeterias, and bactericides in bathrooms. Some pesticides used at schools can affect children’s nervous, endocrine, immune and reproductive systems. Most have not been evaluated regarding their toxicity to children. Most also contain secret, so-called inert ingredients, which also may affect children. (See Eric Sideman’s article in this issue of The MOF&G for more information about inert ingredients.)

Many people are changing what was once a laissez-faire attitude toward pesticide use in schools. In the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, for instance, after the League of Women Voters had integrated pest management (IPM) methods instituted there in 1990, the school system used pesticides only once in five years. Also in Massachusetts, Paul Burns, an environmental attorney with the public advocacy group MASSPIRG, has helped that organization identify problems with pesticide use in schools and come up with solutions. The organization encourages schools to adopt IPM strategies; encourages parents to work for disclosure laws that would require schools to tell what they are using; and teaches parents how to work with schools to implement change. Burns will be the lead speaker at the 1999 Common Ground Public Policy Teach-In on pesticide use in schools.

Burns is especially excited about legislation called “The Children’s Protection Act,” which MASSPIRG is trying to get on the November 2000 ballot. He hopes to know by the time of the Fair if the group has succeeded. If so, the legislation is likely to get nationwide attention, he says, because, if it passes, it will be the first time a state has taken such a strong stand against pesticide uses in schools. The legislation would eliminate most uses of pesticides in schools; force the use of alternatives; and strengthen posting requirements when pest problems are treated. “It would essentially eliminate pesticide use” in schools, day care centers and after school programs, explains Burns. He expects that the proposed legislation will face heavy opposition from chemical manufacturers and the exterminators lobby.

In addition to the proposed legislation, Burns will talk about ways in which the city of San Francisco has limited pesticide uses; and a ban on the use of most pesticides in the Los Angeles school system – the nation’s second largest school district (after New York City).

Along with Burns, Willow Wetherall, a University of Maine student, will tell how she and her May term Women’s Studies course on women’s health and the environment initiated a campaign to get the University of Maine Facilities Management to stop using herbicides on University lawns and turf; and state entomologist Kathy Murray and MOFGA president Sharon Tisher will talk about efforts to implement IPM in Maine schools.


MOF&G Cover Fall 1999