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In Montville, Maine, Unengineered Seeds of Rebellion

  • The small Maine town has kicked up a controversy by banning the cultivation of genetically modified crops
    By TUX TURKEL
    Portland Press Herald, April 13, 2008
    Straight to the Source

MONTVILLE - Yellow bumper stickers here proclaim: "Montville Maine: The way life is."

It's a twist on the state's former tourism slogan: "Maine. The way life should be."

Like its inspiration, the Montville moniker, which also appears on the home page of the town's Web site, is existential and open to interpretation. But it clearly shows a streak of independent thinking.

Two weeks ago, that tendency drew some worldwide attention to Montville. At their annual town meeting, voters passed a binding ordinance banning the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. Supporters say Montville is the first American community outside California to do this.

The Maine Legislature also weighed in on the issue last week. After more than a year of debate -- lawmakers approved a compromise that, among other things, offers some legal protection to organic growers who unintentionally are exposed to genetically engineered seeds.

But it's hard to find middle ground in the Montville ban, and that's causing controversy. A Maine group that represents large biotechnology companies says the ban could chill research and development efforts and hurt the state's economy. Meanwhile, the Maine Department of Agriculture is asking the attorney general for an opinion on whether Montville's ordinance is legal, or violates the state's right-to-farm rules.

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, refer to plants, animals or microorganisms that are transformed by genetic engineering. In crops, changes to a plant's molecular biology can make it more resistant to drought or disease, for instance.

But opponents of genetic engineering say the technology is so new that the changes may have unintended, harmful consequences to people, animals and plants. In Europe, public concern over the safety of modified organisms has led to tight restrictions on imports and to consumer-labeling laws. Late last month, a French court upheld a controversial ban on a variety of pest-resistent corn produced by Monsanto, the large American seed company.

The global controversy over genetically modified products in the food supply rarely makes headlines in Maine. The votes in Montville and Augusta may bring the issue closer to home.

Behind the controversy are competing visions of agriculture, food safety, corporate power and, at the core, progress. They represent differing views of life in Maine -- how it is, how it should be.

FEARS OF CORPORATE INFLUENCE

Life, to take license with a slogan, is in the eye of the beholder in Montville.

The town of 1,000 residents has no school. No store. Not even a post office. Montville's a blur in the rear-view mirror for traffic sailing across Route 3 and the rolling hills between Augusta and Belfast.

Turn north on Route 220, however, and bump along muddy side roads. Pass front yards where melting snow has uncovered the junk cars, rusting appliances and other signs of rural poverty. In time, an outpost of another era appears in the hardwood forest -- plastic hoop greenhouses and a hand-built log home.

Thirty-eight years ago, Claudette Nadeau and Mike Beaudry followed their back-to-the-land instincts with $2,000 and an 8-month-old baby. Beaudry, a timber framer, soon created a cozy house that he has since expanded. Nadeau pursued her passion for plants, a venture that thrives today.

For 19 years, Nadeau's Roots-n-Shoots Greenhouses has been selling an expanding mix of organically grown, open-pollinated seedlings, varieties that sprout true to seed. That means this season's tomato seeds will produce seedlings next year that are exactly like the parent plant.

Many organic gardeners value these plant varieties. They save exotic seeds to create heirloom plants, cultivars that can be handed down for generations. For Nadeau, any threat from engineered seeds that could cross-pollinate with her heirloom varieties and change their genetic makeup is a big concern.

But Nadeau's interests go way beyond business.

In 2006, Nadeau and friends in the local organic growers co-op gathered to watch a documentary, "The Future of Food." The movie bills itself as an investigation into how multinational corporations have quietly been filling supermarket shelves over the past decade with patented, unlabeled, genetically engineered food, part of a bid to control the world's seed and food supply.

The movie reinforced Nadeau's distrust for corporations and big government. It reminded her of past reassurances that chemical compounds, such as DDT and PCBs, were safe for humans and the environment.

Also watching the film was Kai George. An organic gardener who sells flowers and vegetables, George and her architect husband moved to town 35 years ago. They live on 63 wooded acres in a handsome, barn-inspired home.

"We came here wanting to have a healthy, rural environment for our kids, and it was the best thing we did," George said.

That health concern, George said, extends to the unknown, long-term effects of genetically modified food. Since the ordinance passed, she has received e-mails from as far away as Germany and South Africa wanting more information.

It's an unusual twist. The United States grows more genetically modified food than any country, but awareness and debate here is muted.

'PROMOTING INFORMED DISCOURSE'

In Maine, opponents of genetically modified organisms have been organizing on the local level. A few towns -- neighboring Liberty, and Lincoln and Brooklin -- have passed non-binding resolutions in recent years to be "GMO-free zones."

These votes trouble Doug Johnson, executive director of the Maine Biotechnology Information Bureau. The bureau is set up to "promote informed discourse on biotechnology issues" affecting Maine. It's supported in part by corporations, including Monsanto and DuPont.

Early last week, Johnson sent a press release saying Montville's ordinance could hurt the state's economy. The ban, in his view, also restricts other forms of genetic research and development. If The Jackson Laboratory were located in Montville, he said, it would have to close.

That opinion is open to dispute. The real impact of the ban in Montville may be more symbolic than practical.

The ordinance gives growers of genetically modified crops two years to phase them out. But the town has fewer than 10 commercial farms, according to the town clerk. And only one farmer has been growing genetically-engineered crops, George said, on leased land.

In a subsequent Internet blog, Johnson touched on a more-relevant theme: the split between commercial, commodity agriculture, such as Aroostook County's potato industry; and sustainable, organic enterprises, like those practiced 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."

Commodity growers see benefits from genetically-engineered crops that can resist insects or tolerate herbicide sprays. Over the past decade, for example, Maine farmers have used these varieties to grow soy and canola. This year, they have approval to plant field corn that is toxic to borers and other pests.

But Kai George and other organic growers oppose this trend.

Maine isn't Iowa, they say. Rather than compete with farm states in commodity crops that are dependent on genetic modification, why not capitalize on consumer demand and premium prices for organically-raised produce and animals? Rather than hurting the economy, George said, sustainable agriculture could generate new revenue.

SEEKING A LEGAL OPINION

Balancing these viewpoints has become delicate business at the Maine Department of Agriculture. But Ned Porter, the agency's deputy commissioner, said a law just passed in the Legislature attempts to do that.

The law directs the state to establish management practices that are specific to genetically-engineered crops. It also 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," Porter said. "Farmers should be able to choose what they want to do. We ought to be able to accommodate all that."

But Montville's ordinance, Porter said, goes in the opposition direction. Farmers who plant genetically-engineered crops could get into a tussle with neighbors, he said, if other towns enact similar rules. That's why he's seeking a legal opinion on Montville's ordinance.

Prior to last month's vote, Kai George and ordinance supporters showed "The Future of Food" at the Montville Community Hall. Charles Fletcher came to watch the movie.

An organic gardener, Fletcher dreamed up, "Montville Maine: The way life is." It was a joke, he said, but the sarcasm seems to resonate with many people in town.

Fletcher joined more than 100 people who came to town meeting. The ordinance vote was a show of hands. Fletcher joined the majority.

Natives and folks from away generally coexist in Montville, Fletcher said. In passing the ordinance, though, tiny Montville has drawn a line in the soil.

"Things that belong to everybody seem to have been taken away by a few people in power," Fletcher said. "And we can't have that."

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

tturkel@pressherald.com

Copyright © 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers

 

 

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