Dispelling Myths: Biotech and Organic Crops Can Coexist

Sometimes a clarification is in order. Such was the case in December, when Brian O’Connor, BIO’s manager of state government relations, testified at a hearing before the Maine Department of Agriculture.

O’Connor talked to Maine agriculture officials about a series of Best Management Practices (BMPs) the state adopted in lieu of passing legislation that would ban or place other restrictions on agricultural biotechnology.

Although BIO generally agrees with the BMPs, the organization points out the need to dispel myths about biotechnology crops as well as ensure that the BMPs are science-driven, realistic and potentially serve as a set of principles other states can emulate. BIO recommended that state officials take a closer look at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for biotechnology, rules that could settle some thorny issues, such as farmer certification and a 300-foot buffer for certain crops.

“BIO applauds the legislature and the department’s vision in establishing BMPs to help increase comfort levels among growers in the state who may use different production practices,” O’Connor said.

“We are glad that the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources is clearly embracing this concept through the well-developed BMP effort,” he said. “We agree that BMPs are a much more useful way to ensure that agricultural producers communicate more with their peers, rather than onerous and business-inhibiting regulation.”

BIO’s testimony addresses two major points. First, the BMPs must contain references to the USDA’s National Organic Program’s rules for certification. The Maine Department of Agriculture clearly refers to other bodies in the proposal, noted BIO, such as the state Board of Pesticides Control and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

“Since the proposal dances around how to protect organic farmers, it seems absurd that there is no mention of the rules of the National Organic Program, under which Maine’s organic farmers are certified,” he says.

BIO also noted that it is up to the Maine agency to dispel myths that a low-level presence of biotech DNA in an organic crop means the entire loss of that crop and decertification of the organic farm. The organization believes the state agriculture department should point out that, to date, no organic farm has lost certification because of any unintended presence of biotechnology DNA in its crop.

“Much confusion from misunderstanding these facts has led to hysteria over agricultural biotechnology in the state — especially among those state policy makers who have no relationship to agriculture,” O’Connor said.

BIO’s second major clarification deals with a requirement in the BMPs to establish setbacks of 300 feet for corn, yellow crookneck squash and zucchini. The organization says the BMPs offer no explanation for why such a large buffer is needed, and it does not say which grower would have to incur the setback.

“Failure to state which farm would incur these costs is a mistake and leads to confusion,” O’Connor testified, pointing out that the National Organic Program rules say that growers of identity-preserved crops (in this case, organic) have always incurred the extra cost of protecting integrity because they are the ones who will benefit financially from the extra effort.

“If the department disagrees with the USDA, then it should be clearly stated,” he said. “Otherwise, the department should clearly reference existing norms for agriculture across the country and the Federal National Organic Program.”

Maine expects to issue a final version of its BMPs early in 2010.