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MOF&G Cover Summer 1999

 


  You are here:  PublicationsMaine Organic Farmer & GardenerSummer 1999News – Summer 1999   
 News & Events – Summer 1999 Minimize


Ag Committee Says Label Engineered Foods
Maine Legislature Says No Labeling
Second Annual Alternative Paper Conference
Good Life Center News
Northeast CSA Conference
Growers’ Group to Work with USDA Seed Banks
Organic Label Now Okay for Meat and Poultry
Bob Spear New Commissioner of Agriculture
Consumers Union Urges Controls on Specific Pesticides
Study Criticized
New Project Promotes Rare Breeds in Sustainable Agriculture
NOFA Summer Conference Planned
Reptiles and Amphibians Run Out of Habitat
Two Profs


Ag Committee Says Label Engineered Foods

“Your letters, emails and calls had some impact,” says MOFGA president Sharon Tisher regarding the decision of Maine’s Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation to recommend that genetically engineered foods be labeled. “Ag Committee cochair John Nutting said he’d received ‘hundreds’ of letters and calls from consumers for labeling. He also noted, however, that it was a ‘high stakes’ issue, and that ‘never before’ had he seen more lobbyists – for biotech, the Department of Ag., Farm Bureau, etc., at a work session for an ag bill.”

The bill, LD 713: An Act to Establish Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Engineered Foods, was considered in this legislative session after both MOFGA and Nancy Oden tried to submit such bills, with respective legislators to sponsor them. Unknown to MOFGA and Oden, some pro-labeling legislators agreed among themselves to resubmit a bill that had failed in 1998 and to hash out variations in committee.

Rep. Martha Bagley of Machias, who had supported Oden’s original bill, introduced LD 713 at a public hearing before the Ag Committee on April 12, saying, “I’m not an expert on genetically engineered foods, but I firmly believe we have the right to know whether the food we eat has been engineered.” Cosponsor Rep. Linda McKee of Wayne said, “We are guinea pigs. Other countries are more cautious… Marketing runs what we eat, not safety. This is a right-to-know bill, first and foremost.” She added that she is allergic to salicilates, which are in some cheesecakes, so she understands the need of the large number of allergic individuals to know what is in their food. “I urge you to go slowly, read as much as you possibly can. It’s not too late for Maine to say ‘No.’ People will say we can’t do it, it costs too much – but there are countries in the world that are saying ‘No.’”

In supporting the bill, Tisher also emphasized the problem of food allergies, which present the primary, driving force for labeling, she said, since 1 to 2% of the U.S. population suffers from true food allergies. “Because genes encode proteins, food obtained from organisms genetically engineered to express new genes will in most cases contain proteins that were not previously found in the food… Thus, it is entirely possible that future availability of genetically engineered foods could lead susceptible individuals to be allergic to foods they previously could safely consume,” she quoted from a 1996 report of Maine’s Commission to Study Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering. The Commission had hoped that its report “would help to nudge the FDA in the right direction – that we’d soon have a federal labeling requirement. But the FDA has been a stone wall when it comes to labeling, and there’s no indication that that will change,” said Tisher.

She continued: “Since that report, new evidence of health risks have emerged, which decidedly tips the balance in favor of action now,” and she gave Committee members copies of articles from Science and Nature magazines from Feb. 1999 suggesting that a diet of genetically engineered potatoes impaired the immune systems and internal organs of lab rats. She also pointed out that the New England Journal of Medicine unequivocally favored labeling, and that 81% of the U.S. public wants labeling, according to a survey reported in the Jan. 11, 1999, issue of Time Magazine.

Tisher presented a modified, “modest” bill that would require labeling of whole, unprocessed and minimally processed foods. If such a bill passed, she told the Committee, “We would be the first in the nation” to require labeling. This is do-able and would even benefit Maine farmers. Last year, 16 farmers grew soybeans in rotation with potatoes in Aroostook County. Many more are predicted for this year and the following. They command premium prices. Those soybeans have to be certified as not genetically engineered. This is the tip of the iceberg. If Maine farmers can sell products with a label, it will be a competitive gain in the market.”

She also said that if the federal government tried to tell Maine that it could not require labeling, this is wrong. “Since there are no statutes that govern genetic engineering labeling at the federal level, this is a non-issue. States can act on this issue.”

Nancy Oden, representing CLEAN-ME: Citizens for a Livable Environment, said that the bill that came out of the Reviser’s Office was not what she and Rep. Bagley had asked for. “We wanted all genetically engineered foods labeled. This bill is full of ways to get out of it. We would like the Committee to say: All genetically engineered food shall be labeled as such.” Oden pointed out that organic farmers have no problem labeling their products. “We’re proud to label our food. It’s not hard to do.”

When Rep. Ruel Cross of Dover-Foxcroft told Oden that he had received many letters from doctors, scientists and others opposing labeling and asked her, “Who am I to believe?” Oden responded, “Follow the money trail.” Cross also challenged Oden by asking whether Maine produced enough organic potatoes to furnish McCain (a potato chip processor). “Of course not,” Oden responded. “I find California organic potatoes at Shop ’n Save. I can’t find organic potatoes from Maine [there] because there are not enough. I think the legislature should say, ‘We know we can’t keep growing food this way. What if we subsidized farmers to change over to better ways to grow food?’ We could have all of the organic potatoes that McCain, or anyone else, wanted.” Oden also read a letter from Dr. Robert Lodado of Dover-Foxcroft, who supported labeling.

Monrique Gotreau, a teacher from Bangor, said that she reads labels diligently, but that she could not find information about engineered ingredients on them. “If corporations were truly confident about their products, they wouldn’t mind labeling them,” she said. She cited an editorial that had run in the Bangor Daily News that day, saying that engineered foods may be good or bad, but they should not be hidden; and she read a letter from a mother of five who could not attend the hearing but who finds shopping increasingly challenging because of the lack of choice presented. Likewise, Ruth Gabey of West Gardiner said that “corporations have gone too far in tampering with nature” and that “inadequately tested products” were on the market, while Hildie Lipson of Wayne told the Committee, “Not passing this bill would be a slap in the face of the consumer. Nothing about this bill could hurt the consumer.” She argued that people who are vegetarians and who hold to religious dietary rules should be able to tell what is in their food.

After this first hour of testimony in favor of the bill, an hour was devoted to those who opposed it. Matt Standon of the Grocery Manufacturers of America said that the FDA ensures that these foods are safe; that genetic engineering is the equivalent of breeding by traditional methods; and that FDA regulates labeling. “Labeling could lead consumers to think [that genetically engineered foods] are unsafe,” he concluded.

Michael Vayda, a biotech researcher with the Univ. of Maine, said that he was speaking personally, as a molecular biologist, and not as a representative of the University. He said that the proposed labeling would provide no information on potential risks. “Listing of novel proteins might be more valuable to the consumer,” he said, then added that since so many foods now on the market are transgenic, labeling would be meaningless. He suggested, instead, labeling foods that do not have engineered ingredients. He argued, too, that he believed labeling would increase the cost of food in Maine, and that the increased cost would be passed on to the consumer. Also, labeling “may have environmental and economic effects on growers in the state,” he said, claiming that crops engineered to contain the Bt toxin can reduce pesticide use here. “If [growers] have to label, they may not want to grow them.”

Vayda also promoted genetic engineering. There’s no reason to expect a greater health risk from genetically engineered foods than from those that are bred by traditional methods, he said, adding that traditional breeding adds many genes in thousands of combinations, while engineering introduces only a few genes with known characteristics. He said that crops with more vitamin E, longer shelf life, and resistance to disease and insects “are all good things.”

Rep. Rosita Gagne of Buckfield said that she found Vayda’s testimony “scary;” that genetic engineering “is not really natural, but you’re insinuating it is. What’s really scary is pesticides. If genetically engineered potatoes resist a living creature, and [these potatoes] will then be inside me… eventually it will do something inside me. You are changing the cosmos. I find this bill not harmful at all. I would not mind paying an extra penny or two” for labeled food. She told Vayda that she recognized what a “thrill” it was for him to be “part of that future destiny” that genetic engineering represents, but asked him again why he didn’t think engineered foods should be labeled. Vayda responded to her comment about consuming Bt-potatoes, saying that the acidic human gut breaks down the protein (the toxin) in Bt, but that the insect gut is alkaline, and so does not break it down. When Sen. John Nutting of Androscoggin asked Vayda whether he would support a bill that required more specific labels, Vayda said, “I think that would be a step in the right direction.”

Scott Beal of the National Food Processors Association told the Committee that if something should be labeled, the Association supported it “when scientifically justified,” and he gave the example of pasteurization of juices. He introduced the Association’s scientist, Dr. Jeff Barek, who told the Committee that viruses that were engineered into plants would not get into the environment because “virus resistant potatoes don’t have the whole virus, just three individual proteinaceous components. The cell is tricked into thinking it has a virus, but it doesn’t really. It’s a nonreproducing type of virus.” Regarding marker genes, he said that the FDA has put out guidelines regarding “the proper way to use” them, and that the industry used “antibiotics that have no clinical significance to human and animal health.” Barek brought up a study by Dr. Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, which suggested that rats’ internal organs and immune systems were damaged when the rats ate engineered potatoes. Barek said that a committee reviewing Pusztai’s work claimed that the results could not be verified, and that Pusztai was dismissed from the Institute. He added that when a Brazil nut protein that was engineered into a crop was found to be allergenic, “the industry recognized the allergenicity.”

Potato grower Neil Crane of Exeter, who sells his crop primarily to FritoLay (which takes crops from 11 to 12% of the Maine potato acreage), said that he used Bt-potatoes in part of his production for the last four years. He said that he would not be able to afford to build storage bins to separate engineered from nonengineered potatoes if labeling were required. Also, FritoLay would not support labeling and would get its potatoes elsewhere if Maine passed LD 713. He added about FritoLay: “They believe in this technology.”

Michael Corey, Executive Director of the Maine Potato Board, said that he sees “a whole series of problems” with labeling. It would be required in grocery stores but not in restaurants, for example. He added that the FDA has thoroughly studied Bt products, and that Bt was widely used throughout the organic community. “The FDA has said several times that they see no need to put a label on” such foods, he said. “You are asking people in Maine to do something nobody else in the country is doing. How are we going to regulate what’s coming into Maine from Idaho or any other state?”

When asked by Sen. Leo Kieffer of Aroostook whether McCains had a ban on engineered potatoes, Corey said, “Not to my knowledge. They lifted the ban two years ago.” He added, however, that the company has “some concerns because of their export market to Europe.”

David Popp, who farms in Dresden, opposed LD 713 because he saw it as “unworkable.” He said that engineered crops could be used to reduce pesticide applications and to feed an increasing population.

Returning the floor to proponents of the bill, the Committee heard from Roger Perry of Farmington, a retired physician and pharmacist. He explained that genetic engineering was not the same as traditional breeding, because natural barriers to crossing were no longer in place. Engineering “can produce novel organisms that are not found in nature. This is a very young technology. It’s still in its infancy. It cannot predict where a gene will end up in a genome. That’s why they have to put market genes in.” He added that many traits are not expressed by single genes, and that environmental characteristics, both within and outside of cells, can affect gene expression.

Responding to statements that the FDA ensured the safety of the food supply, Perry said that most engineered crops are not under any regulation, and for those that are, only summaries of data must be submitted to the agency. Relating this industry to the drug industry, he said that annually, 2.2 million people are afflicted by adverse drug reactions, and that in 1998, three drugs had to be recalled and taken off the market, even though they had previously been FDA-approved. “Fast-track approval has come by pressure from industry groups,” he said. “The same can happen with genetically engineered foods.” He worries about antibiotic-resistance marker genes, since “we are now using fifth and sixth generations of antibiotics because of resistance.”

He said that instigating new genetic pathways “may reactivate unused pathways in plants,” changing more than the target characteristic, and that engineering certain traits into or out of crop plants may have unforeseen consequences. He gave the example of caffeine in coffee beans, which kills a fungus that grows on the beans. A genetically engineered, decaffeinated bean may support the growth of that fungus, which is very toxic to humans. Also, contrary to opponents’ statements, he also said that “not all toxins are deactivated in the human gut.”

Merle Thompson, President of the Board of the Rising Tide Food Co-op in Damariscotta, said: “People in our store don’t want to know if a specific gene is in food. They want to know if Monsanto’s footprint is on it.”

Pam Prodan of Canaan cited her opposition to monoculture farming, which biotech encourages; and her family history of allergies. She no longer purchases canola oil, potato products, soy products, or products with enzymes. She avoids most cheeses, although “European cheeses are pretty good.” She’s changed brands, no longer buying tuna with soy protein added and no longer buying FritoLay products. “Corporations say trust us,” she said. “Do I really have to trust Monsanto? I hope not!” She said she is unable to trust a corporation that gave us PCBs, Agent Orange, and is a potentially responsible party in 93 Superfund Cleanup sites.

Jean Hay pointed out that the Bt toxin is present in unnaturally high concentrations in engineered potatoes and that the potential reaction to Bt ingestion has not been studied. “Why would any farmer want to grow a food crop that he can’t label because the consumer won’t want it?” she asked. “This label will be a place to start,” she said, suggesting that it be combined with a trademark, such as NewLeaf. Regarding antibiotic resistance marker genes, she asked, “How do we know they are clinically insignificant?”

During my testimony, I cited Harry S Truman’s words that secrecy and a free democratic government don’t mix. I told the “rest of the story” that Dr. Jeff Barek of the National Food Processors Assoc. had omitted in his testimony: i.e., that a panel of international scientists, independent of the Rowett Research Institute (which receives considerable funding from Monsanto), said that Dr. Pusztai’s research conclusions were justified, and that the panel recommended a five-year moratorium on the sale of genetically engineered foods in Great Britain. I told about the deaths of 37 people and permanent disabilities of 1500 who had taken an engineered form of L-tryptophan in 1989, and about a news article reporting increased rates of allergies to soy in Great Britain last year.

I talked about the many bans, moratoriums and labeling requirements that have been instigated in Europe and other countries, such as labeling at Sainsbury’s, the second largest supermarket in Great Britain, and at rival chains Tesco, Safeway and others. I also mentioned that Canada lost $300 to $400 million in canola sales last year because the Canadian government didn’t require labeling; and the drop in exports of corn from the United States to Europe last year, down from 70 million bushels in 1997 to 3 million in ’98 – because it wasn’t labeled as nonengineered. Furthermore, I provided a list of employees who had been through the “revolving door” between Monsanto and the FDA and other offices in the Clinton administration.

Russ Libby, Executive Director of MOFGA, stated that the legislature recently upheld Gov. King’s veto concerning removing prices on gas pumps. “If we have the right to know gas prices, we should know what we’re eating,” said Libby. He added that companies don’t want to segregate engineered foods from nonengineered, but that segregating is done routinely throughout every step of the food supply. Also, he pointed out that Sainsbury owns Shaws supermarkets. “They’re doing it [labeling] in the UK, but not here,” he said.

Annya Tisher, a junior from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor, said that honesty is one of the most important ethical issues, and that if companies really believed in their products, they would be labeling them.

Beedy Parker of Camden argued that genes are highly unpredictable and that each consumer is responds differently to substances. “We don’t know the long-term effects to individuals and populations eating large quantities, and we won’t for a long time, and if we don’t label, we’ll never know.”

Will Bonsall, Director of the Scatterseed Project in Industry, Maine, noted that the arguments were “lining up on two sides,” i.e., “those of us dressed like hippies and those of us dressed like Mormons,” referring to the dark suits on the “anti” side of the room. “Just purely from a food industry point of view,” he continued, “I think this is an incredibly pro-business bill. If I’m a businessman and I’m producing something I want to sell you, I want you to know everything possible about the [product]. Your confidence is extremely important to me. That’s what a real businessperson says. Those who don’t want you to know – that’s not a businessman, that’s a crook. Even if this stuff is fine, a heck of a lot of people are worried about it. Maine wants to produce food people will buy. We’ve got to address that.”

As far as “jumping ahead of the rest of the country,” Bonsall said that “Maine has already done that with its bottle bill, organic standards… “ He cited our state motto, “Dirigo,” “to lead,” and said that “we have been very much a role model for others. We’re going to be producing something people can trust.”

Moving back to the opponents, Jon Olson of the Maine Farm Bureau joined those who said that labeling should be done on a national level. Mario Teisl of the University of Maine, who has done research on labeling and worked for the FDA, said that labeling would put a “major burden” on some processors; that a bill passed in California in the ’80s requiring labeling of foods that could cause cancer ended up requiring a label on “almost every food product sold there;” and that consumers can take in only three to five bits of information when making a decision, then they are overloaded and ignore additional information.

Tom Doak of the Maine Dept. of Agriculture said that the bill would be unenforceable; would hurt farmers; would be cumbersome for retailers and a burden on consumers. He reiterated that labeling should be done on a national level if it’s needed. “Like any new technology,” said Doak, “it creates fear. It’s important not to overreact to it.”

Christine Burke of the Maine Grocers’ Association said, “We are quickly coming to the point where we are going to end up with more labels than products,” referring to labeling requirements for irradiation, pasteurization, etc. She favored a simpler labeling system: organic, transitional or conventional.

Cheryl Timberlake of the Biotechnology Association of Maine opposed the bill because it would threaten the “strong…biotech industry in the state.”

The final round of proponents included Richard Rhames of Biddeford, a conventional farmer, who said that farmers had been urged for a long time to adopt new technologies that had made them “canaries in the coal mine.” The argument in favor of these technologies was that they would “free [farmers] from the drudgery of farming. In fact,” said Rhames, “it has – from drudgery and farming!” In response to the powerful push by industry and the university to adopt new technologies, he said, “Some of us feel a time-out might be a good thing. I wish we could stop talking about the ‘agricultural industry’ and start talking about farmers and eaters.”

Nancy Ross, a Ph.D. candidate in nutrition at Tufts University and former Executive Director of MOFGA, argued with Mario Teisl’s testimony, saying that many studies had shown that consumers are not overloaded by additional information. “Giving people information about genetic engineering would help consumers make decisions.”

Prentice Grassi, a farmer from Union, said that he had “not seen evidence that the technology will better the long-term welfare of my farm, my family or my community,” while Polly Shyka, also of Union, said that reading labels has helped her keep her allergies under control.

William Bell of the New England Feed and Grain Council claimed to be testifying “neither for nor against” the bill. “Maine is no big deal,” he said. “It’s so small, companies don’t need to supply” it. Rep. Wendy Pieh of Bremen asked, “You call that not taking a position?”

When LD 713 was taken up at a work session on April 15, the Agriculture Committee initially voted 7-6, with Republicans and John Nutting (a Democrat) supporting a watered down “voluntary” labeling bill that would let people label their foods as “not genetically engineered” if they wanted. In fact, people already have the right to do this. Committee cochair Wendy Pieh and bill sponsor Martha Bagley supported a minority report for MOFGA’s amendment, which would require labeling of whole, unprocessed and minimally processed foods. After the work session however, Republican support for even voluntary labeling had withered in the face of strong opposition from lobbyists, reports Sharon Tisher, so Nutting switched to the Democrats’ side, turning the minority report into a majority report.

“This is the first time a genetic engineering labeling bill has made it out of committee with a favorable vote” in Maine, says Tisher, although such bills have been introduced twice in the past. “Honesty in the marketplace is the first step towards a dialogue about the pros and cons of this technology,” she added.

– Jean English

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Maine Legislature Says No Labeling

As we went to press, we learned that both the House and Senate of the Maine Legislature had voted down the bill to label genetically engineered foods in the state. In the September issue of The MOF&G, we will list legislators who voted for and against labeling, and we'll let you know who the lobbyists were who convinced the "anti" group to oppose your right to know what you're eating.

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Second Annual Alternative Paper Conference

The Second Annual Alternative Paper Conference will be held October 15-16, 1999, at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. It will address environmental and economic issues with regard to “traditional” and “alternative” papermaking technologies, the impact of industrial forestry on global warming (i.e. the impact on carbon sequestration), the potential for new fiber crops and their uses in Maine and New England, current trends in the paper market and Maine’s economy, and many other critical paper use topics. For those interested in participating, organizing, speaking, or co-sponsoring, please contact Heather Burt at Compassion Unlimited-Respecting Everyone (C.U.R.E.), P.O. Box 100, Edgecomb, ME 04556 or adburt@wiscasset.net

If you do not want to help prior to the event, but are interested in receiving registration materials and the agenda in early September, please reply with only your mailing address.

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Good Life Center News

Forest Farm Resident Stewards Jen Jones and Jake Kennedy will be staying for a second year, taking care of the Nearing homestead, cultivating the organic gardens, and receiving visitors. Last year, over 1500 people visited the Farm, including 400 at the Monday Night Meeting series. Thanks to Jen and Jake, the Farm will host three “Hands-On Workshops” this summer. The Good Life Center (GLC) has entered into a publishing partnership with Chelsea Green Publishers in Vermont to keep Nearing books in print and to issue new titles under The Good Life Center imprint. John Saltmarsh’s biography of Scott Nearing, Scott Nearing: An Intellectual Biography, was republished last fall. Two titles to be republished this summer are Simple Foods for the Good Life and Wise Words for the Good Life. All Nearing books in print can be obtained by contacting GLC or Chelsea Green. The GLC has also entered into a relationship with the new Thoreau Institute archive in Lincoln, Massachusetts, to house Nearing papers. The Good Life Center welcomes visitors and inquiries from all who are interested in the Nearings’ legacy (Good Life Center, Box 11, Harborside ME 04642; 207-326-8211).

– Kathy Mills

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Northeast CSA Conference

The Northeast Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Conference II will take place from Nov. 11-13, 1999, at Tamiment, Pennsylvania. The first such conference took place in 1997 and drew 350 farmers, consumers, extension professionals and others. For many, the collaborative effort was one of the most successful and inspiring events focusing on agriculture in the Northeast in recent memory. Much to the surprise of the conference planners, the most pressing question of the attendees was...When is the next conference? So here it comes!

The conference provides a forum where ideas, information and experiences are exchanged; promotes new CSAs in the Northeast and furthers the development and long- term sustainability of existing ones; strengthens the network among CSA and other farms, supportive organizations and the general public; and raises media awareness of and public involvement in this rapidly expanding approach to agriculture.

The conference is supported by a grant from the Northeast Regional Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) to the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG). Together, NESAWG, Just Food, Wilson College, Cornell Univ., the Univ. of Mass., and Equity Trust are building the region’s CSA network infrastructure and providing network services to CSA farmers, members and others.

To get on the mailing list about Northeast CSA Conference II, send your name, farm/organization name, address, phone, fax and/or email address to Just Food, 625 Broadway Suite 9C, New York, NY 10012, Attn: Sonja Kenny.

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Growers’ Group to Work with USDA Seed Banks

A budding, cooperative project of researchers, organic growers and others could help replenish the nation’s seed banks. More important, it could create market opportunities for new public and heirloom crop varieties.

The Agricultural Research Service, USDA’s chief scientific agency, maintains the National Plant Germplasm System. Its 27 repositories now hold about 437,000 specimens of germplasm – seed, cuttings and other tissue. Thousands of accessions are added each year. Researchers worldwide use the germplasm to breed crops with improved yield, nutrition, resistance to pests, disease and environmental stress or other traits.

The ARS is cooperating with the Farmer Cooperative Genome Project (FCGP) to test a new way for organic growers, farmer cooperatives and small seed companies to tap into this storehouse of genetic diversity. Members of FCGP will grow fresh supplies of germplasm, following established guidelines that ensure, for example, that regenerated seed is true to type – not contaminated by pollen from nearby crops of the same species.

Members will also develop marketable new varieties from germplasm they may never have known about otherwise. For example, an ARS repository in Corvallis, Oregon, has more than 400 heirloom pear varieties. In Pullman, Wash., ARS maintains more than 200 lines of garlic. These represent most of those crops’ genetic diversity. Only a few varieties account for nearly all commercial production, according to horticulturist Richard Hannan of the ARS Western Regional Plant Introduction Station in Pullman. Other plants with FCGP potential include heirloom varieties and wild relatives of tomato, lettuce, bean, broccoli, Egyptian onion, radish, blue and other Native American corn, blackberry, strawberry, Turkish grain legumes and little-known herbs such as black cumin.

More than 200 small family farmers, organic farmers, seed producers, breeders and others will participate in FCGP, according to J.J. Haapala, research and education director of Oregon Tilth and administrator of a USDA Fund for Rural America grant to the genome project.

Source: Agricultural Research Service press release. Scientific contact: Richard M. Hannan, ARS Western Regional Plant Introduction Station, Pullman, Wash., phone (509) 335-1502, fax (509) 335-6654, hannan@wsunix.wsu.edu.

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Organic Label Now Okay for Meat and Poultry

The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service will now allow labels that claim that a product is “certified organic” by a recognized entity. Producers must submit the labels to the agency for approval and supply documents from the organic certifying agency. The agency will also continue to regulate labeling claims of meat products raised without added hormones or antibiotics.

Source: “Meat, Poultry Can Now Apply for ‘Organic’ Label,” Reuters, April 13, 1999. Thanks to Dick Parker for forwarding this article.

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Bob Spear New Commissioner of Agriculture

Long-time dairy and vegetable farmer Robert Spear of Nobleboro was approved as Commissioner of Agriculture by the Maine Legislature in late March. Spear was appointed by Governor King as successor to Ed McLaughlin, who resigned effective mid-January.

Robert Spear served in the Legislature as a state representative for four terms, serving on both the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee and the Taxation Committee at various times. However, most of us will know Bob as a long-time leader within the Maine Association of Conservation Districts and an active farmer himself. With his father, and now his brother and their sons, Spear Farms has been involved in dairy production for many years. In recent years, realizing that the farm had a good supply of nutrients, they have moved more into vegetable production. At first they focused on sweet corn, but the farm now has several acres of mixed vegetables and hoop houses for early crops, selling both retail and wholesale to Maine supermarkets.

Already Commissioner Spear has taken the initiative to get out and visit with all Maine farm groups – MOFGA included. His goal is to have a Department of Agriculture that is inclusive of all perspectives. His focus, along with the Governor’s, is to work hard on building markets for Maine farmers. Governor King and his wife, Mary Herman, have already agreed to be part of that work. The Commissioner has also announced that he is planning to use the recently completed “Business Plan for Maine Agriculture,” put together by the Agricultural Council of Maine, as a guide to his future actions.

MOFGA is pleased to see a renewed focus on marketing at the Department, and looks forward to working with Commissioner Spear in the years ahead.

– R L

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Consumers Union Urges Controls on Specific Pesticides

A new study by Consumers Union says that regulators should focus on the few, specific pesticides that contribute disproportionately to contaminating the U.S. food supply. The CU analyzed data collected by the USDA on domestic and imported, fresh and processed fruits, vegetables and a few other foods. The foods were prepared as homemakers would: peeling oranges, rinsing apples, etc. By analyzing data on some 27,000 samples in 27 food categories, from foods sampled from 1994 to 1997, CU devel­oped a toxicity index that integrated various health risks and the actual amounts of pesticide residues on foods. It found that some pesticides can be thou­sands of times more toxic than others.

Of the 27 foods that the USDA tested, seven scored hundreds of times more toxic than the rest; they were: apples, grapes, green beans, peaches, pears, spinach and winter squash. Apples had 37 different chemical residues, for example.

Foods that scored very low included apple juice, bananas, broccoli, canned peaches, orange juice, and canned or frozen peas and sweet corn. Pesticides used on these foods are less toxic, used in smaller amounts, applied longer before harvest, or removed or destroyed during preparation.

One chemical that was especially excessive and harmful was methyl parathion, a neurological poison that contributed almost all of the toxicity score of domestic peaches and frozen green beans, and much of the score for apples and pears. In 1996, two out of five U.S.-grown peach samples were contaminated with methyl parathion, and single servings of peaches “consistently exceeded the EPA’s current safe daily limit for a 44-pound child – the average 5-year-old.”

Dieldrin, a carcinogen that was removed from the market in 1974 but takes decades to break down in the soil, was in three-quarters of the frozen winter squash samples, and two-thirds of these contaminated samples had enough dieldrin per serving to exceed the safe daily limit for a young child. Because dieldrin cannot be washed off (it is absorbed into the flesh of the food), CU recommended that farmers not plant root vegetables or cucurbits (squash, melons and cucumbers – crops that take up dieldrin) on contaminated soil.

Aldicarb was the third insecticide that CU recommended regulating. This pesticide – used by potato growers in Washington state and Idaho – was found in about 6% of the potatoes tested in 1997; about 1 in 20 potatoes that were tested individually had more aldicarb than the safe limit set for a young child. Aldicarb, like dieldrin, cannot be removed by washing.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the toxicity of U.S. produce was greater – sometimes 10 times greater – than that of imported produce in 26 out of 39 comparisons.

“Based on our analysis,” said the organization, “Consumers Union has asked the EPA to restrict or ban specific pesticide uses that expose children to residues above safe limits. For virtually all of these uses, there are less toxic ways of controlling pests... The government should provide financial and educational support for this transition” from chemical farming to more sustainable methods. “It should also direct more research toward finding safer ways of managing pests...”

For consumers, CU recommended avoiding giving children large amounts of the foods that scored highest; peeling or washing with very dilute dishwashing detergent those with high scores; and buying organically grown produce. “When we tested organic fruits and vegetables, we found that they had few or no toxic pesticide residues.”

Source: “How safe is our produce?” Consumer Reports, March 1999. The full report, “Do You Know What You’re Eating? An Analysis of U.S. Government Data on Pesticide Residues in Foods,” is available at www.consunion.org. Thanks to Lynn Allen for forwarding this article.

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Study Criticized

The Council of the Society of Toxicology has criticized the CU report, saying that information obtained from flawed methodology misinforms the public on the risks of pesticide exposure. “The report is based upon CU’s term the ‘toxicity index (TI)’, which was calculated for individual fruits and vegetables. We submit that the methodology used to determine the TI is scientifically invalid. Well-known principles of toxicology based on the need to consider dose and duration of chemical exposure are ignored or misrepresented... CU’s call for banning of specific pesticides also lacks a scientific basis.”

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New Project Promotes Rare Breeds in Sustainable Agriculture

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) of Pittsboro, NC, has been awarded a $40,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to promote the use of rare breeds of livestock in sustainable agriculture. The grant, awarded through the foundation’s Integrated Farming Systems (IFS) initiative, will survey the use of animals among sustainable agriculture organizations and producers and develop strategies to use a broader range of animal breeds in sustainable or low-input systems.

With the practice of sustainable agriculture expanding rapidly, livestock producers are discovering limits to animal performance in low-input systems. One reason for this lack of performance is that the chosen breeds have been selected for performance in the highly industrialized sectors of modern agriculture.

Changing production systems, such as the pasture based systems, requires a change in genetics. Rare breeds are noted for their foraging ability, parasite resistance, and general thriftiness in low-input systems, making them the ideal choice to replace to cross with existing breeds. With appropriate genetics, many production obstacles that are a result of industrialized genetics in low-input, sustainable systems may be overcome.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a national, non-profit membership organization protecting genetic diversity in domestic animals through the conservation of rare breeds. Founded in 1977, ALBC is a leader in animal genetic resources conservation and part of a global network of livestock organizations. For more information: Dr. Donald Bixby, Executive Director, ALBC (919-542-5704).

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NOFA Summer Conference Planned

The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) will hold its 25th annual Summer Conference and Celebration of Rural Life at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., on August 13-15, 1999.

Over 140 workshops will present information on topics ranging from basic organic farming and gardening techniques to large scale organic agriculture, sustainable living and environmental and political action. Learn about homesteading, animal husbandry, nutrition, sprituality, families, health issues and more. Farmers, gardeners, homesteaders, environmentalists, teachers and other community members will all find something of interest at this lively event.

A children’s conference, concurrent with the adult workshops, offers arts, crafts, music, and fun with animals for 5 to 12-year-olds; and there is free play, stories and songs for the 2 to 4-year-olds. An exciting teen conference for anyone 13 to 17 years of age features crafts, educational workshops, games, skill builders and lots of time for socializing.

Inger Kallander, head of the Swedish organic movement, will be the keynote speaker for the conference on Friday evening. Inger is highly experienced in the political and organizational aspects of organic gardening, and has written several books on organic production methods. Her work in this field is truly inspirational.

A fun-filled, old fashioned Country Fair on Saturday afternoon will feature plenty of games and demonstrations with Dale Perkin’s Horse Show kicking off the festivities. Participate in the tug-of-war, visit the farmers’ market, and bid at the silent auction. Browse the books and information related to organic growing. Network with growrs and meet new friends.

Evening entertainment will include a contradance, open mike coffeehouse and zydeco music, as well as informal group gatherings, debates and discussions.

Come for the weekend or for the day. Dorm rooms, camping and wholesome organic meals with vegan, vegetarian and meat options will be available at reasonable rates. For further information, please contact Julie Rawson at 411 Sheldon Road, Barre, MA 01005 (978) 355-2853, -2270.

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Reptiles and Amphibians Run Out of Habitat

The combined effects of El Nino and a long-term increase in the tempera­tures of the ocean surface are believed to be responsible for raising the level of the cloud bank on Monteverde in Costa Rica, according to J. Alan Pounds and his colleagues from the University of Miami. This, in turn, has led to longer periods of warmer, drier weather – and a coincident, severe decline in popula­tions of amphibians and reptiles that once lived at upper elevations there. Pounds hypothesizes that climate fluctuation may have weakened the animals and made them more susceptible to pathogens or parasites. Pounds’ work highlights the way in which disruptions to complex environmental interactions can harm populations, says Andres Blaustein of Oregon State University. The study also shows that as climates shift, animals cannot always shift in response. For the Golden Toad, which required the high, moist environment at Monteverde, once the cloud cover lifted, there was no place left to go.

Source: “Frog Decline Linked to Climate Shift,” by William Souder, The Washington Post, April 15, 1999. Thanks to Nancy Allen for forwarding this article.

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Two Profs

Congratulations to Richard Brzozowski and Lois Berg Stack, who have been promoted to Extension Professors. Both have been immensely helpful to MOFGA members.

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