Brooklin Voters Reject Modified Crops
By Wendy M. Fontaine
Bangor Daily News
April 04, 2005
BROOKLIN - After a debate that shifted between contentiousness and hostility, voters on Saturday made their community the first in Maine to take a collective stance against the use of genetically modified crops. At Brooklin's annual town meeting, the question whether to voluntarily ban the cultivation of genetically engineered plants, trees, fish and animals was the last item on the warrant, sparking a public debate characterized by jeers, shouting and accusations that each side was spreading misinformation.
The measure to make Brooklin a GE-free zone is not an ordinance but more of a symbolic gesture about the town's feelings about altered crops.
Marilyn Anderson, who submitted the petition that ultimately put the topic on the warrant, said it is one community's statement against the dangers of genetically modified organisms.
"This is the town of Brooklin saying, 'Enough,'" she said. "This is a consciousness-raising. This is about hoping that anyone who plants or grows anything is very aware of the effects it can have on the environment."
Genetically modified organisms are those that have had their DNA altered in some manner in order to change their characteristics.
Proponents say the method can make crops stronger and more resistant to problems such as disease and pests, while opponents argue the modified species are invasive and potentially dangerous for the environment. The topic has been a hot issue in Maine in recent years.
About 100 people gathered in the Brooklin elementary school gymnasium for Saturday's meeting, which lasted five hours before the topic of genetic engineering even came up. Contrary to past practice, most stayed until the end, eager to have their say on GMOs.
Organic grower Leslie Cummins, who lives in Brooklin and is a member of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association's public policy committee, has been an activist against GMOs for several years.
She said modified crops have lower yields, are less nutritious and can cause irreversible damage once they are introduced into the environment.
"If we get polluted or contaminated, that's it. It's out there," she said.
Resident Tim Seabrook said genetic modification goes beyond selective breeding and hybridization. A gene from one species is implanted in another, crossing the boundaries of what occurs in nature, he said.
Tammy Andrews, the town's treasurer, said she feared the voluntary ban would set a dangerous precedent that could lead to declarations against other activities in her community.
"What's going to be next?" she said. "A no-pet zone? A no-smoking zone? A no-Catholics zone? You're opening up a can of worms."
Much of Saturday's hostility focused on whether to allow Douglas R. Johnson, executive director of the private, nonprofit Maine Biotechnology Information Bureau, to speak at the meeting.
Johnson, a Stonington resident, was prepared to address the group about some of the merits of biotechnology but residents called him a "high-paid lobbyist" and refused to let him speak.
"We don't need any outside lobbyist," one person yelled from the bleachers.
"Was he paid to be here today?" another shouted.
Resident John Bradford favored allowing Johnson to speak, saying residents should hear both sides of the debate before "making a blanket condemnation of GMOs."
"We need to be enlightened about this, simply because it is a highly complex issue," he said. "This is not just a Brooklin issue. It is an international issue."
Bradford also said he felt the town was being used "as a pawn" by groups pushing to get Maine to adopt GE-free zone legislation. His comments were met by booing from the audience.
"I think that some people sound very scared to hear another point of view," said resident Joyce Barr, who wanted to hear what Johnson had to say. "I want to be informed as a voter," she said.
After more than an hour of debate, town officials called for a standing vote. A two-thirds majority of voters approved the voluntary ban.
Immediately after the meeting, Johnson told the BDN that he received no pay to attend the meeting.
"I'm not a lobbyist. I'm an advocate," he said.
Saturday's declaration was not intended to prohibit laboratory research or to prevent businesses from selling, serving or marketing genetically modified products.
That left some, such as 19-year-old Mike Allen Jr., wondering why the topic was presented to residents in the first place.
"What is the point of this?" he said. "If it's not going to change anything or restrict anything, then it's a waste of time in my opinion."