Montville ban on genetically engineered crops stirs contoversy

April 16, 2008

A new ordinance in Montville, Maine that bans the cultivation of genetically modified crops has stirred up controversy well beyond its borders.

A Maine group that represents the biotechnology industry warns that the ban approved at town meeting two weeks ago could put a damper on research and development efforts and harm the state’s economy. Meanwhile, the state Department of Agriculture is seeking an opinion from the attorney general on the legality of the ordinance.

Critics of genetically modified crops say changes in a plant’s molecular biology may have unintended, harmful consequences. Advocates of the technology cite positive benefits such as making crops more resistant to drought or disease.

The controversy over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, reflects competing visions of agriculture, food safety and corporate power.

Organic farmer Claudette Nadeau worries that engineered seeds could cross-pollinate with her heirloom varieties and change their genetic makeup. She is also distrustful of corporations, recalling past assurances that chemical compounds such as DDT and PCBs were safe for humans and the environment.

In recent years, a handful of other Maine towns neighboring Liberty, and Lincoln and Brooklin have passed non-binding resolutions to be ”GMO-free zones.” Montville’s ordinance is binding, however, and supporters say it’s the first such measure to win voter approval in a U.S. community outside California.

The issue is also getting attention at the state level. After more than a year of debate, the Legislature last week approved a compromise that directs the state to establish management practices that are specific to genetically-engineered crops. Among other things, the law shields organic farmers from lawsuits by corporate seed makers for patent violations linked to the unintended presence of engineered plant material on their land.

“We’re a big state with a lot of different markets,” Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Ned Porter said. ”Farmers should be able to choose what they want to do. We ought to be able to accommodate all that.”

But Porter worries that Montville’s ordinance violates right-to-farm rules. He said farmers who plant genetically-engineered crops could get into a tussle with neighbors if other towns enact similar ordinances.

Doug Johnson, executive director of the Maine Biotechnology Information Bureau, expressed concern that Montville’s ban restricts other forms of genetic research and development, a stance that could hurt the economy.

In an Internet blog, Johnson addressed the split between commercial, commodity agriculture, such as the Aroostook County potato industry, and sustainable, organic operations, like those run by small growers in Waldo County.

“This isn’t a fight over what may or may not be grown in Montville,” he wrote. ”It’s a battle over the public’s acceptance of science in shaping the future of agriculture.”


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