BPC Nixes Genetically Engineered Corn
The Maine Board of Pesticides Control (BPC) stunned international chemical and seed conglomerates Novartis Seeds and DEKALB on December 12 by denying their applications to market genetically engineered field corn in Maine. This was the first time these products – which incorporate Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) genes designed to produce endotoxins lethal to the european corn borer (ECB) – have been denied registration in any state. Novartis and DEKALB claim the products are authorized for use in every other state except California and Alaska, where the companies have not sought registration. The denials came in the face of substantial opposition from organic growers and environmentalists, citing unanswered questions about the role of the genetically engineered plants in promoting insect resistance to Bt pesticides. Board member Alan Lewis capsulized the sentiments of the 4-3 majority voting against the applications: “Since there are some questions [about resistance], we actually have the luxury of making Maine not participate in this experiment.”
When Novartis and DEKALB originally presented their applications to the BPC on October 24 (see Dec. 97/Feb. 98 MOF&G), the companies acknowledged that managing insect resistance was a major concern with the genetically engineered plants. If widespread use of the Bt corn develops in the field, it is likely to place “high selective pressure” on the ECB to become tolerant to the Bt endotoxin, Novartis representative Jeff Stein admitted. Concern about resistance, and lack of research regarding ECB growth, migration, and mating behavior, had led the EPA to grant DEKALB and Novartis only conditional registrations, subject to development of an effective resistance management plan by the year 2000. Since neither company presented any data on October 24 on the extent of the ECB problem in field corn in Maine, to address the Maine statute’s requirement of showing a “need,” the applications were tabled until December 12 to allow for the submission of data on need, and for more public input.
When they returned to the Board on December 12, DEKALB and Novartis presented no further research or documentation on the ECB problem in Maine. They argued that use of the Bt corn would produce “increased silage yield and increased silage quality,” but acknowledged that “limited information is available from the public literature on the effects of Bt corn on silage yield.” They cited only one reported study, from New York, suggesting that the Bt corn yielded an average of 2.1 tons per acre more than a conventional hybrid. Several growers and dealers appeared before the Board claiming their fields had suffered ECB damage, including Tim Hewitt from Skowhegan, who claimed one field suffered a “20 to 25% loss” due to the pest. Neil Crane of Exeter, one of three grain corn producers in the state, testified that he “doesn’t have scientific data,” but he knows he’s getting stalk damage. He joined other producers in arguing that “every tool available has to be made available to farmers in Maine or we can’t stay competitive.” Lauchlin Titus, representing Agway, argued that his credentials as a certified crop advisor lent scientific credibility on the issue of need: “That makes me a scientist, and I can tell you I have seen corn borer damage.” Although the Maine Farm Bureau did not present testimony, it submitted a letter to the Board in support of the applications. In that letter, Jon Olson on behalf of the Bureau likened opponents of biotechnology to those in the 1880s who opposed hatching “artificial” chickens in incubators, and predicted that within five years “nearly 100 percent of all U.S. farm acreage could be planted in genetically engineered crops.”
This writer presented MOFGA’s testimony, arguing that organic growers, the fastest growing sector in Maine agriculture, would be the first to suffer when insect resistance developed to the Bt pesticide. As Bt is derived from natural soil bacteria, it is one of the few pesticides available to organic growers. The impact of the loss of Bt would eventually be felt by all growers and the environment generally: “Because of its effectiveness and safety compared to the pesticides it displaces, Bt is probably the single most important insecticide ever discovered and the loss of such a pesticide would cause growers to switch to more harmful pest control agents” (quoting from the EPA rulemaking petition filed September 16, 1997, by an international coalition of organic growers and environmental groups seeking cancellation of registration of all transgenic Bt crops). MOFGA urged each member of the Board to study the extensive data on the resistance risks presented in the EPA rulemaking petition, including evidence that the tobacco budworm, a cotton pest, became 10,000 times more resistant to Bt after three years of exposure to Monsanto’s transgenic Bt cotton, Bollgard, and that intense infestations of cotton bollworm occurred in 1996 in fields planted with Bollgard.
MOFGA also argued that the lack of any scientific support for the claims of yield impact for silage corn distinguished these registration applications from the earlier application for the transgenic potato, which had been field trialed in Maine. Unlike the extensive array of pesticides used to control the Colorado potato beetle, no pesticides are currently used to control ECB in field corn, as a need has not been identified. While testing of the Bt corn in other states had shown an improvement in the quantity and quality of corn on the husk, with silage corn, the entire plant – stalk, leaves and husk – is harvested and ground for fodder. The overall impact in silage yield is speculative. MOFGA cited Cooperative Extension corn pest specialist Don Barry (an authority evidently miscited in DEKALB’s testimony as supporting need) for his observation that DEKALB’s claims about increased yields were “hard to believe without any data.” Barry advised MOFGA that the New York study submitted on silage yield was of questionable relevance, since “the further south you get you’re going to see more [ECB] damage” because of the longer growing season and consequently more generations of the pest in a season. In Maine, “as far as biomass goes,” Barry noted, “I’m not sure the corn borer decreases the plant at all.” Barry’s bottom line perspective on transgenic plants in the field was essentially the same as MOFGA’s: “The longer we can limit their dissemination, the longer Bt’s going to be useful for everyone.” MOFGA concluded by observing that registering a new pesticide for use where no pesticides were previously perceived as necessary, and one that presented a risk of “unreasonable adverse effects on the environment,” was inconsistent with the Board’s statute on registration criteria, as well as with the newly enacted statute calling for minimized reliance on pesticides, P.L.1997, Ch. 389.
MOFGA’s opposition was soundly supported by other Maine environmentalists. Nancy Allen, co-chair of the Maine Green Party, argued that it was time for the states to “step into the breach” left by a lax EPA registration process that “relies way too heavily on industry information.” Citing the September 16, 1997, EPA rulemaking petition to cancel registration of the Bt crops, Allen argued that, “[the states] can’t do the testing, but we can opt to hold off on approving the process until more field knowledge is in and some of the major concerns are addressed in official answers to the petition and through the Science Advisory Panel.” Allen also cited recent studies from Europe indicating susceptibility of nontarget ladybugs to toxins produced by genetically engineered potato plants, and transfer of genetically engineered herbicide resistance to wild species.
Nancy Oden of CLEAN: Maine, sponsor of a petition to ban aerial spraying of pesticides, expressed particular concern about the impact of the new products on herbicide use. Both products use a marker gene to facilitate production of the plant, and the market gene confers tolerance to the active ingredient in the herbicide glufosinate, marketed as Liberty herbicide by another company. Liberty, which is only recommended for use on genetically modified Liberty resistant crops, is a highly toxic herbicide that is not to be sprayed, Oden testified, “within 600 to 800 feet of anything you want to preserve.” Oden argued that Bt is a “stalking horse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a coverup” for a scheme to market Liberty herbicide. (At the October 24 BPC meeting, Novartis’ Jeff Stein had argued that, at least in the short run, there was no collusion between Novartis and the company marketing Liberty herbicide, since the two were “suing the pants off each other” over gene patent infringement claims. Resolution of those suits could, however, result in Novartis’ product, like DEKALB’s, being marketed as “Liberty-linked.”)
Will Neils, co-chair of the Maine Green Party, argued that all the evidence for need for these products in Maine was based on “allegations, assumptions, guesses … nothing tangible.” In response to the need for more “tools” for Maine farmers, Neils countered that for him, “a tool is a rake or a tractor.” In the face of all of the uncertainties about these products, Neils argued that we shouldn’t “jump into a swimming pool because someone’s telling us there’s water in it.” Amy LeVangie of Searsport concurred that the concerns expressed about the ECB at the hearing appeared to have been generated by the product marketers: “The farmers didn’t start investigating what was going on until the salespeople showed up...The people who are going to suffer,” LeVangie predicted, “are the people trying to grow good healthy organic food in the next field.”
Board Needs Data, Assurances
The combination of the unanswered questions about resistance and the tenuous evidence that ECB is a real problem for silage corn in Maine carried the day for four out of seven BPC members. Alan Lewis noted that in view of the grower concern from “a significant sector of organic farms,” we “had better have a very clear demonstration of need.” This burden simply wasn’t met to Lewis’ satisfaction: “The Board needs more than anecdotal evidence...The words I keep hearing are ‘guess’ and ‘assume’. In my training as a scientist, the first thing we try to get away from is guessing and assuming.” Public Board member Jo D. Saffeir indicated that she was more concerned about the resistance issue than the lack of research on need: “I suspect that if research were done it would show a need exists … [But] I don’t want to approve a product that may improve competitiveness in the short run but hurt [corn] and all other growers in the long run.” Board chairman Tom Saviello was the swing vote, joining Lewis, Saffeir, and Carol Eckert in voting to deny the registrations. In a statement made following the vote, Saviello emphasized that he had no doubt that genetic engineering of plants was a valuable development for agriculture, and would reconsider his opposition if the applicants were able to demonstrate that a need exists to control the ECB in field corn in Maine.
Opponents Fear Pesticide Registry Fuels Political Agenda
The BPC’s proposed pesticide notification registry (see MOF&G, Dec/Feb. 1998) drew strong opposition from exterminators, golf course superintendents, and a public utility at a public hearing on the proposals in Augusta on January 30, 1998. Opponents argued that structural pest control – where applications were within 10 feet of a building – should be exempted from the requirement that neighbors be notified in advance. They also argued that the $5/$10 fee structure should be significantly higher, to discourage people from being on the notification list. Glenn Nadeau of the Maine Public Service Company, an electric utility in Presque Isle, argued that compliance with the registry requirements would be difficult and that the fees should be higher, so that the registry didn’t play into the hands of the anti-pesticide activists: “Environmentalists may use this as part of a political agenda in order to limit use of pesticides.” Although BPC staff had predicted that about 250 people might avail themselves of the registry, Nadeau, citing MOFGA’s membership as 2500, argued that that might be a significant underestimate. David Bell of the Maine Blueberry Commission, while generally supporting the notification rules, testified in support of Nadeau’s concerns regarding the political agenda. Bell claimed that there were “minor but occasional” instances in Washington County where neighbors, after notification, would enter blueberry fields to prevent spraying.
Vaughn Holyoke, former director of the U. Maine Cooperative Extension and former chair of the BPC, agreed with having a registry for people with documented chemical sensitivity, but testified that when the registry is opened to anyone who opposed pesticide use, “you’re getting into philosophical differences and … harassment by neighbors.” He argued that it was unreasonable to require homeowners, when requested, to produce Material Safety Data Sheets for products they were using. Holyoke also felt that the proposals hadn’t been widely enough publicized, and that “for a lot of people this will come as a shock … because they have no idea what you’re doing.” When staff toxicologist LeBelle Hicks noted that in Connecticut, which also has an open registry, only 150 people annually register for notification, Holyoke responded that, “we probably have more ‘back to the earth’ types here than in any other New England state.”
Tom Small, testifying on behalf of the Maine Golf Course Superintendents Association, argued that notification “presents a misconception that proper use of pesticides presents a risk to humans.” EPA approved labels are themselves an “assurance of safety,” Small argued. June Boston, owner of a golf course and athletic field service company, argued that it was unreasonable to expect homeowners to read and understand Material Safety Data Sheets, when even “applicators sometimes have trouble reading label instructions.”
MOFGA reiterated in the hearing its strong support for the proposed notification rules, as an important step forward for organic growers, chemically sensitive people, and all those concerned about the risks of long-term pesticide exposure to themselves and their children. Richard Sandstrom of Lewiston joined in support for the proposals. Sandstrom, who has a family member with extreme chemical sensitivity, testified that he has in the past had no problem obtaining or interpreting Material Safety Data Sheets, and that review of that information discloses numerous reasons, even with granular pesticide products commonly used by homeowners, that individuals should be concerned about exposure. The BPC was expected to take final action on the proposed regulations at its February 27 meeting.
BPC Puzzled by Hexazinone Groundwater Data
Blueberry growers currently apply the herbicide hexazinone at a rate of 1 lb. per acre – about half the rate applied five years ago, according to a recent survey by Cooperative Extension Blueberry Specialist Dave Yarborough. Yarborough also estimates that about 80% of the hexazinone now applied is in granular form, which is thought to present less risk of groundwater contamination than the liquid form used exclusively several years ago. It was therefore puzzling to several BPC members that Yarborough could not state, in his January 30, 1998, report on the Cooperative Extension’s Hexazinone Water Sampling Program, that the impact of these “Best Management Practices” had had any impact on the levels of hexazinone contamination found in well water.
Yarborough’s report, covering 16 wells and five streams or ponds adjacent to or in blueberry fields in four counties, for 1996 and 1997, showed fluctuations from month to month in contamination levels, but was unable to demonstrate any statistically significant trend of either increasing or decreasing contamination. Yarborough said he has also to date been unable, because of the complexities of the analysis required, to interpret any trend over earlier years of sampling. Yarborough predicted that in future years contamination levels probably would not change: “I have interpreted to this point that unless there’s a change in management practices, [contamination levels] will fluctuate but stay within the same levels of concentration.”
With one exception, contamination levels remain well under the State’s health advisory limit. That exception, a private well in Washington County, tested in April, 1997, at 105 ppb, which declined to 29 ppb by October. Yarborough reported that this level was a “surprise,” and prompted further investigation and testing of other area wells. Other wells showed contamination consistent with other low level findings and under 10 ppb. Site inspection “revealed a large area lacking in blueberry plants.” Soil samples in the open spots were as high as 1507 ppb, leading Yarborough to conclude that this was a site of a spill. Two blueberry companies were identified as having used this area as a loading and staging area, but neither admitted to experiencing a hexazinone spill. The owner of the private well uses the water as a drinking supply, but had been employing a filter even before the high test results were determined.
Yarborough’s report led Jo D. Saffeir to query whether the BPC’s Hexazinone State Management Plan (SMP) “is really improving the situation.” [The SMP, adopted in July, 1996, recommended a response to the widespread but low level groundwater contamination from hexazinone in several Maine counties, through voluntary adoption of Best Management Practices by growers and through licensing all hexazinone applicators. The SMP was criticized by one member of the Hexazinone Special Advisory Committee, Larry Lack, as inadequate to address the problem of groundwater contamination.] Board member Carol Eckert also expressed concern that “we don’t see the numbers going down steadily.” Saffeir agreed : “I feel at a loss at being able to interpret whether we’re having an impact on the problem … If we’re not getting data to tell whether there’s an impact on the problem, we’re not doing our job.” Staff member Tammy Gould stated that while the objectives of the State Plan were to “minimize” contamination, there were no precise objectives, and “we don’t have a zero degradation plan built into the plan.”
Yarborough was asked to reanalyze his data and try to determine if there was any relation between the reductions in rates of application and the shift to granular product, and any identifiable trends in contamination. Gould also reported that a separate hexazinone groundwater sampling program conducted by the BPC covering 53 sites in five counties was due to commence in February with results reportable by April, and may be more informative.
The next BPC meeting will be on March 27.
– Sharon S. Tisher