The Maine Board of Pesticides Control (BPC) focused much of its attention on genetically engineered (GE) corn in Maine recently. Lauchlin Titus of Ag Matters LLC asked the board to eliminate its mandated training requirement for farmers who plant GE corn containing the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) protein. This training ensures that farmers know the latest information on Bt corn. After receiving public comment on the issue, the board decided in December not to eliminate the requirement but to require training once every three years instead of every two. MOFGA testified in support of maintaining training.
Also in December, the board considered a product registration request from Pioneer for two Bt corn "refuge-in-a-bag" products, Optimum® AcreMax (EPA No. 29964-12) and Optimum® AcreMax Xtra Insect Protection (EPA No. 29964-11). Previously, the product label required that farmers who planted Bt corn also plant a refuge – a block of corn without the Bt trait planted adjacent to the Bt corn. Insects not exposed to Bt would mate with exposed insects and maintain genes for susceptibility in the population. But because resistance has developed throughout the United States, particularly in the South and Midwest where the refuge requirement was often ignored, many companies that produce Bt corn have developed "refuge-in-a-bag" varieties, where a bag of seed contains Bt and non-Bt corn. The EPA accepted the manufacturer's recommendation that the new product contain 5 to 10 percent non-Bt corn, rather than the previously required 20 percent of total acres planted. The reduced refuge requirement is troubling because no scientific evidence suggests those numbers will prevent insect resistance. In fact, the Bt corn technical committee, which advises the BPC, seemed to agree that resistance will likely occur, but that what happens in Maine is unlikely to matter, since resistance will probably develop in heavy corn producing areas of the country.
Since the Bt corn technical committee recommended allowing the Pioneer product registration, and minimal discussion occurred at its December meeting, the BPC approved registration of the two new products. Chuck Ravis was the only Board member opposing the registration.
Organic growers may face two new issues related to refuge-in-a-bag Bt products. The first deals with insect resistance. Eric Sideman, MOFGA’s organic crop specialist and a member of the BPC Bt corn technical committee, wrote in his position to the board that “Bt is perhaps the single most important tool to organic growers for insect management.” If resistance develops, organic growers will have far fewer options to deal with specific insect pests. Sideman was the only committee member who advised against allowing the registration.
The potential for pollen drift from Bt corn to organic corn is another issue. When a block refuge was required, organic growers could, under BPC rules, request that it be planted in a way that gave maximum protection from Bt corn pollen drift. With "refuge-in-a-bag" products, the BPC’s ability to enforce this rule is unclear. Also confusing is Pioneer’s written statement suggesting that the company and its customers will voluntarily plant block refuges to protect organic growers. Since the BPC has no control over what companies or individuals agree to do voluntarily, this promise is not enforceable.
The board will likely initiate rulemaking on regulations regarding Bt corn to clear up confusion regarding these products and protections from pollen drift. MOFGA will continue to testify and support policies that protect organic growers. The current BPC rule states that “non-Bt-corn growers whose crops are or will be located within 500 feet of a prospective Bt-corn planting site can request that the Bt-corn grower protect the non-Bt-corn crop from pollen drift.” For more information on requesting or reaching an agreement, contact the BPC at 207-287-2731.
At its November 2011 meeting, the board approved a new policy allowing the staff to grant variance requests for pesticide applications within 25 feet of the water line when plants are present that pose a dermal toxicity. This includes poison ivy, poison oak, giant hogweed and others. The policy states, “The variance must include agreement to use low-pressure, handheld application equipment, and the spray must be directed away from the water with no drift or direct discharge to the water body or wetland.” This policy was adapted in response to a variance request the board granted in 2011 to allow for a poison ivy treatment on Pushaw Lake.
At its November 2011 meeting, the board unanimously approved a consent agreement with Scott’s Lawn Service of Gorham. A Scott’s employee applied Halts 22-0-8 Plus .28%, Halts Pro and Ortho Weed B Gon Pro, products containing herbicides, to the wrong property – one managed organically and containing many edible plants. Also, through an administrative error, the Scott’s employee wasn’t a licensed applicator at the time. The company vacuumed the treated property within an hour of the misapplication. This was Scott’s sixth violation in the past three years. A $900 fine was levied.
Minutes and agenda of BPC meetings are posted at www.maine.gov/agriculture/pesticides/about/agenda_archive.htm.
– Katy Green