The chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been widely used since the 1950s in products ranging from food packaging to fire fighting foam. PFAS have recently been recognized as contaminants in agriculture and are believed to largely be entering soil through the application of biosolids, industrial sludges and ashes, which may contain these compounds that are difficult to break down. Over the past few years PFAS have emerged as a growing contaminant of concern for the food supply in Maine and elsewhere as testing has revealed levels of contamination in milk produced in areas where land was spread with amendments containing PFAS (in most cases, decades ago). As an organization working to create a safe, healthy and fair food system for all, this issue is of great concern to MOFGA and we’re closely following, and deeply involved in, the work to understand and address this issue across the state.
We have developed a web page with information geared toward farmers and land managers that outlines what we know now and what can be done, with several helpful resources and contacts.
Generally, we, along with everyone else, are working to understand the situation, including ongoing work with state agencies. MOFGA Certification Services has the ability to perform testing when we believe there is a risk of contamination or violation of the organic standards on certified organic farms, but the testing is limited to prohibited pesticides or thresholds established federally by the FDA or EPA. Currently there are no federal thresholds set for PFAS in any food products.
Biosolids are not allowed to be used in organic production, nor applied to the land for the three years prior to harvest of an organic crop. Because PFAS are “forever chemicals,” sludge that may have been applied long before organic farmers acquired their land may still have an impact today. Biosolids are also not allowed in compost approved by MOFGA for use on organic farms, though we believe it’s possible for contamination to enter compost based on the source of compost feedstocks (e.g., cow manure). This resource from The Sierra Club describes how PFAS can enter compost and garden environments.
At this time there are no current federal thresholds for PFAS contamination in food crops, and Maine only has thresholds set for milk and beef, which were recently developed. MOFGA is pushing the Maine CDC to come up with thresholds for other food crops.
Current MOFGA work on PFAS includes:
- Leading on-farm research with Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection and University of Maine Cooperative Extension to better understand long-term PFAS uptake by forage.
- Leading a cohort of professionals who are developing support for farms, including piloting a free private testing and consultation program, developing a FAQ brochure, and creating public decision-making guidance related to testing, which will be released in 2022.
- Managing an emergency testing fund with Maine Farmland Trust, created to support affected dairy farms who might need to pay for soil tests to access the federal Dairy Indemnity Payment Program. We’re currently working to expand the fund beyond dairy farms.
Despite the long-term devastating effects of PFAS contamination, sludge containing PFAS can still be used in conventional agriculture settings. We’re working with many Maine-based organizations engaged in passing policies in the Legislature to:
- Stop the spreading of biosolids containing PFAS on agricultural lands.
- Determine the prevalence of PFAS in pesticides sold and used in Maine and create a plan to eliminate the use of PFAS-containing pesticides.
- Promote research on crops that can be grown to help remediate PFAS-contamination of soil.
- Require product manufacturers to report whether they have intentionally added PFAS to their products.
- Empower the Department of Environmental Protection to prohibit the sale of certain products containing PFAS.
- Eliminate the sale of PFAS-containing products by 2030, unless their use is deemed unavoidable.
- Require testing and monitoring of soil and groundwater where PFAS-contaminated sludge has been applied.
- Close a loophole that currently allows PFAS-contaminated sludge to be mixed with compost.
These ambitious policies will only be passed with the support of Mainers across the state. You can stay up to date on our policy priorities by visiting the Take Action page of our website.
We are just beginning to understand the prevalence of PFAS on land, including former agricultural land, across the state. This work will continue to evolve and adapt as we better understand the situation and work collaboratively on creative solutions. Sign up for our weekly email newsletter to stay up to date on all of MOFGA’s work.