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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, April 2005 by Wendy
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
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
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."
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