Alice in Potatoland
February-March 1995
Alice in Wonderland had nothing on two hearings I attended recently - a Pesticides Control Board hearing Feb. 24, 1995 in Machias, and a hearing before the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources of the 117th Maine Legislature in Augusta on March 8, 1995.

I went after catching a segment on Maine Public Radio, in which a Monsanto spokeswoman vigorously described a new product - a potato they had genetically engineered so that it grows its own pesticide.

We're not talking enhancing resistance. We're talking pesticides, insecticides, by design now part of this plant.

Seems this russet potato, trade name NewLeaf, produces so much of this pesticide that even the toughest Colorado potato beetle could not survive after eating one tiny bite of the plant, the radio said.

"Yes, the protein gives 100 percent control against the Colorado potato beetle," said Lisa Watson, Monsanto manager of health and consumer affairs.

The pesticide they were talking about is a variety of Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, which is one of those rare pesticides approved for use on organic foods. I knew that. As a commercial organic farmer, I had even used it to combat potato bugs in my fields. I know it breaks down in the open air and sunlight in a matter of hours. And yet I found myself gagging as I listened to that radio report.

The presentation in Machias was slick, and from a scientific point of view, very interesting. But just because something can be done doesn't mean it should be done, and as I listened, I kept hearing reason after reason why this whole thing is a bad idea.

First of all, the Monsanto scientists at the Machias meeting refuted their own spokeswoman, and said right up front that some beetles, if only a few, would probably survive. Some resistance has already been noted. It would take only a few seasons for those superbeetles to repopulate the fields, rendering all this scientific work useless. They know this already.

So their plan, and this is where it starts to get surreal, is to mix this potato in with normal potatoes, either within the same field or in scattered patches over the landscape, so that there will always be some peasant beetles (my term) with which the superbeetles can breed, reducing their resistance.

Got that? The scientists were insisting that, for their plan to work, farmers must deliberately grow potato beetles susceptible to the pesticide at the same time they are growing potatoes designed to kill them.

Of course, to guarantee a continuing supply of peasant beetles, the normal potatoes will either have to be sprayed with conventional chemicals, or be sacrificed to the gods. Since this potato was developed to cut down on the time and expense of spraying, I can't imagine that farmers would find this requirement very attractive.

I also learned the FDA and EPA do not require tolerance testing, ostensibly because Bt has been so thoroughly studied. A pesticide fact sheet passed out at the meeting listed 15 Bt tests on rats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and one on humans, all testing for immediate, or acute toxicity.

We now know that pesticides have a disproportional impact on the growing bodies of our infants and kids. Bt is deadliest to baby insects - it says so on the label. I saw no tests listed which were done on infant, adolescent or pregnant laboratory animals, and no tests at all for long-term affects.

And then we learned at the meeting that Bt is not the only thing thrown into this potato. Apparently there is no simple test for Bt, but there is for the antibiotic neomycin. So they're attaching a neomycin segment to the Bt segment, to keep track of which potatoes are theirs. Since the antibiotic marker is not considered part of what they are trying to do (kill Colorado potato beetles), it is listed as an inert ingredient.

Here I was, worried about feeding my kids pesticides with the mashed potatoes. I did not know, until that hearing, that casual antibiotics were also an issue.

I also noticed that Monsanto, who brought you souped-up cows for greater milk production, considers the potato farmer the "end-user." It is still totally blind to the fact that we are dealing with a food product here.

I took what was left of my 5-gallon container of Bt v. san diego, under the trade name of M-One, to both hearings, and showed it to both boards.

The container has a label that reads: Hazard to humans and domestic animals ... Avoid inhalation ... open cuts or wounds ... wear gloves, dust mask ... goggles. Environmental hazards. Keep out of lakes, ponds or streams."

(The container label also calls it an "insecticide." One farmer at the Augusta hearing insisted that the Bt was not an insecticide because an insecticide is a poison, poisons kill, and this stuff doesn't kill the bugs, it just paralyzes them so they can't eat, and they starve to death. Honest to god, he said this.)

I went to both hearings to speak as a marketer and a mother. As a farmer, I have successfully marketed such tough sells as brussels sprouts and Old Goat Soap. I know from whence I speak. And I issued a caution - if NewLeaf is approved for general production, it will become the first crop of lemons ever to be commercially grown in the state of Maine.

I think growers are being led down a garden path. Yes, they will have potato houses stuffed full of big, beautiful potatoes. But those potatoes will be as unsaleable as they would have been if they had been individually inoculated with the Irish potato blight. The Maine potato industry apparently has never heard of Meryl Streep. A potato with a built-in pesticide that you can't wash off? Forget it.

But it may not take the Alar Queen to do the number on our entire potato industry. Jay Leno could have that effect with just one brief monologue that sounds something like this:

"You catch that up in Maine they're now getting ready to grow potatoes that have built-in pesticides? Yeah, that's right. The Monsanto spokeswoman was quoted on Maine Public Radio as saying that this genetically-engineered potato produces so much of this pesticide that even the toughest Colorado potato beetle could not survive after eating one tiny bite. Seems it paralyses the digestive tracts of the little buggers. Now doesn't that just make your mouth water? I can hear it now. Please pass the mashed potesticides, mother. Yum. No thanks, I don't think I'll have any more. My tummy just went numb."

I set up a demonstration at both hearings.

"Gentlemen," I said, "you have a hot potato in front of you. And next to it you have a cup with a small amount of the Bt we're talking about. Do you feel comfortable pouring that insecticide, organic though it is, onto that potato and eating it? Because that's what we will be asking people to do if we grow these potatoes.

"Before you dive in, let me remind you: Organic may mean natural, but not all natural things are harmless. Madame Curie thought radium was harmless, and as a result we lost her genius far before its time. Heroin is made from the milk of beautiful, natural poppies. Some organic farmers have stopped using organically-approved rotenone, because it is so toxic to too many different insects. And hemlock is certainly a natural elixir, but I wouldn't want it as an after-dinner drink."

(One member of the Pesticide Control Board, very hungry since the hearing had gone on long past the lunch hour without a break, scarfed up one of the undoctored potatoes, but none took up my offer for a topping of Bt.)

No, I am not against this technology. I think it has its place. A perfect example would be Japanese beetles. Monsanto could make the rose-lovers of the world ecstatic if it could find an effective Bt specific to Japanese beetles, and throw that gene into a rose bush or two.

But this technology does not belong in food products.

With recent studies which say pesticides have a disproportional impact on the growing bodies of our infants and children, we should be very cautious about sending out into the universe, and the corner grocery store, a food product with a component that is at its deadliest to baby insects.

Monsanto is selling this new potato to growers as a no-spray crop. From a farmer's point of view, no-spray means not getting out the tractor and spraying equipment, and not ordering up the expensive chemicals, and not fueling up the equipment and spending hours and hours riding around the fields.

No-spray to the consumer means something entirely different. No-spray to the consumer means no pesticides in the food they are buying. Any wording on any label you require for this potato which indicates it was done to reduce the need for farmers to spray this crop is deceptive and should not be allowed.

If this potato is approved for commercial use, I strongly urge that it be clearly labeled, down to the real end-user - the one who actually eats the thing - so that those of us who wish to avoid it can do so.

Maine has for years been on the cutting edge of letting consumers know what is in or on their food. Our organic labeling law was one of the first in the country. Our laws requiring country of origin information on fresh fruits and vegetables lets people avoid, if they choose, foods from those countries which allow pesticides which are banned in this country.

We treat our food seriously here in Maine, because we know it is serious stuff. We need it to stay alive. We want to stay alive because of it, not in spite of it. We need to know what we are dealing with.

I think some genetic engineering is more of concern than others. I am more concerned, for instance, about pesticides grown in my food, than I am about a flavor-enhancing gene. People have the right to differ on what concerns them. And they should have the information they need to act on those concerns.

I want to know what I'm eating. I feel I have a right to know when my food has been tinkered with. I want to be able to try new technology if it sounds appealing, but I also want to avoid technology I think is idiotic, or even downright dangerous.

It should not be up to the regular growers to protect themselves by telling the pubic what their potatoes are not. The obligation of disclosure falls to the one who has something new to disclose. The new kids on the block should be the ones required to wear the name tags.

With that in mind, I would strongly urge the members of the Pesticide Control Board and the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee to mandate clear labeling for all "NewLeaf" potatoes grown for human consumption, with that labeling intact down to the ultimate consumer. That means bagged potatoes would be labeled, potatoes sold in open bins would have the information right on the price marker, and those potatoes sold in restaurants - baked, mashed, or fried - would have that information on the menu.

If this potato isn't labeled, I'm afraid people who are concerned about feeding pesticides or antibiotics to their kids will, to be safe, simply avoid all Maine potatoes. And those farmers who, for whatever reasons, choose not to buy into this process, will suffer a fate they don't deserve.

And that means that our regulatory agencies will in effect have said to the millions of plain Maine potato swains:

Let them eat rice pilaf.
The above is a genetically engineered essay produced from:
  • a statement to the Maine Board of Pesticide Control, Feb. 24, 1995;
  • a column, Bangor Daily News, March 4, 1995;
  • and testimony to the Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources, 117th Maine Legislature, March 8, 1995