Fall 2002

MOFGA has been closely monitoring the issue of compliance with the 2001 Maine genetic contamination legislation, “An Act to Protect Against Contamination of Crops and Wild Plant Populations by Genetically Engineered Plants.” We’ve concluded that Monsanto’s “compliance” with this legislation in “instructions” misses the mark by a long shot. Following is the text of a letter Russell Libby sent on June 20 to Commissioner Robert Spear of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources.

Commissioner Spear responded to this letter with a letter dated June 28, which confirmed the Department’s position that it will take no enforcement action against Monsanto. The Commissioner proferred an interpretation of the National Organic Program rules that suggested that an “unintentional presence” of genetic contamination would not result in a farmer’s loss of organic certification and consequent loss of organic price premiums. He also suggested that Monsanto was not required under the Maine legislation to give its growers a recommended buffer zone distance until such a distance had been set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. MOFGA disagrees with the Department’s interpretation of both the national organic standards and the Maine legislation, and intends to accept the Commissioner’s invitation to discuss these issues further with him.

Dear Bob:

I want to express our serious concerns about the inadequacy of enforcement of the GE cross contamination legislation. As you know, contamination of organic field corn crops by pollen from a neighbor’s genetically engineered corn will jeopardize MOFGA certification, depriving the Maine organic dairy farmer of 50% price premiums. We have reviewed Monsanto’s “compliance” with the legislation, which was only belatedly filed with the Department of Agriculture, not twenty days in advance of any sale as required by the statute. We find it so inadequate as to be a mockery of Maine’s legislation.

Maine organic dairy is the fastest growing sector of Maine agriculture, accounting now for over ten percent of Maine dairy farms. The Department owes it to these farmers, as well as to Maine’s conventional and organic sweet corn producers, to ensure that their crops are not contaminated with RoundUp Ready field corn. And you owe it to farmers who want to plant GE corn to ensure that the manufacturer complies with the statute in order to protect the farmer from the threat of litigation.

The Department should take immediate steps to enforce the legislation that it supported, and that passed with the unanimous support of the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, and with the participation and concurrence of Monsanto’s own lobbyist. At a minimum, Monsanto should be required to rewrite and redeliver their instructions, in a manner acceptable to the Department, with a clear and adequate recommendation for a buffer zone distance. Monsanto should disclose the list of farmers purchasing this corn this season in Maine, and should conduct an immediate investigation to advise the Department of the buffer distances that have been adopted by those farmers. This can and should be accomplished before the corn that has already been planted matures sufficiently to present a risk of pollination, in order to assess potential risks and take mitigation steps to avoid damage.

At a meeting on Friday May 17 with representatives of Coop Voices Unite, when the inadequacy of this compliance was brought up, Deputy Commissioner Ned Porter stated that Monsanto’s planting instructions were “… deemed to meet the law as passed,” and that if farmers were vulnerable to lawsuits, nothing would be done by the Department until a lawsuit emerged. He added that if he had written the instructions, “he would have written them even more vague.”

The Act, as you know, requires Monsanto to “provide written instructions to all growers on how to plant the plant parts, seeds or plants and how to grow and harvest the crop to minimize potential cross-contamination.” The wisdom and importance of this requirement is underscored by the (flattering) fact that Congressman Dennis Kucinich has introduced language modeled on Maine’s legislation in Section 6 of his just released H.R. 4812, the Genetically Engineered Crop and Animal Farmer Protection Act of 2002. This bill already has over 20 House sponsors and has been endorsed by the Sierra Club, the National Farmers Organization, the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Trade Organization, and the American Corn Growers Association. A copy of H.R. 4812 is enclosed for your information.

Monsanto’s “Instructions for Planting Genetically Engineered Plants or Seeds …”, a copy of which is also enclosed, cannot really be called “instructions” at all. It’s a summary of factors that can affect the occurrence and extent of pollen movement, but doesn’t instruct the farmer in any specific steps to take to “minimize potential cross contamination.” Most surprisingly, the sheet does not contain any recommendations for adequate buffer zones. The only statement about distances between fields is that “published studies have reported that most cross-pollination occurs less than 30 feet downwind from the pollen source and at 80 feet the likelihood for cross-pollination is less than 10%.”

This isn’t “instructions.” It’s not even useful information. And to the extent that it suggests to the farmer that 80 feet is a good, safe guess at an adequate buffer zone, it is false and misleading, and hundreds if not thousands of feet off base.

When we asked John Jemison, Coop­erative Extension Water Quality Specialist who has researched cross contamination by Monsanto’s RoundUp tolerant field corn at Rogers Farm, what buffer distance he would recommend to “minimize potential cross contamination” of a downwind crop, he said “I would use the distance that farmers have used to protect hybrids,” which is, according to USDA recommendations, 660 feet.

A glance at a number of seed production manuals in MOFGA’s library and other resources confirms that distances necessary to protect corn crops from unwanted pollination is far greater than Monsanto’s sheet suggests:

U.S.D.A. Seeds: The Yearbook of Agriculture, 1961: “Fields of different types of corn (like white and yellow or sweet corn and field corn) must be at least 80 rods [1260 ft.] apart.”

Iowa State Extension service: 1000 ft. buffer necessary to prevent cross-contamination by GE corn (, p. 5)

Marc Rogers, Saving Seeds: The Gardener’s Guide to Growing and Storing Vegetable and Flower Seeds: “The distance downwind from the nearest [corn] crop of a different variety is most important. A distance of 1,000 feet between varieties is recommended for absolute purity, though 250 feet is far enough if some crossing can be tolerated.”

Seed Savers Exchange: 1985 Harvest Edition: “Corns are wind-pollinated, so any corn … will cross very easily with any other corn. So in order to keep a corn “pure,” you will either have to grow it a quarter of a mile from any other corn, or you will have to hand-pollinate it.”

Suzanne Ashworth, Seed to Seed: Seed Saving Techniques for the Vegetable Gardener: “Corn pollen is light and can be carried for long distances by the wind. Isolating a variety of corn by two miles will ensure purity.”

In fact, a careful examination of Monsanto’s “Maine Instructions” indicates that the company has done nothing, in effect, to comply with the particular requirements of the Maine law regarding corn pollination. The two page “instructions” is nothing other than a slightly rearranged text from the general 2002 Technology Use Guide, that goes to all states (see p. 17). As such, it addresses only the concerns of the farmer who wishes to “preserve the identity of their non-genetically enhanced corn.” It says nothing about the importance of protecting a neighbor’s crop from contamination. Hence a Maine farmer who was only planting GE corn, after reading this, wouldn’t think twice about buffer zones.

I enclose a copy of our original testimony in support of the cross-contamination bill, as a reminder of the wealth of scientific authority expressing concern about the GE contamination issue, and the advantages for Maine farmers to ensuring genetic protection for their crops.

I thank you for your attention to this matter. Please keep us advised of developments.

Very truly yours,
Russell Libby

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