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Maine Organic Farmers Raise Concerns about Mosquito Control Proposals
03/07/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

As Maine begins to see more and more cases of mosquito-borne diseases, several efforts are now underway at the state level that would create a unified state plan to control some of Maine's tiniest pests. But those efforts, which include expanded use of pesticides, are raising some big questions within the agriculture community. Jennifer Mitchell reports.

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LD 292 sponsored by Lincoln House Republican Jeffrey Gifford, would create the structure of a state mosquito control program, similar to what already exists in other states. In Massachusetts, authorities can issue a pre-emptive strike against mosquito-borne illness, such as West Nile virus, by spraying pesticides over breeding areas that pose a danger.

Henry Jennings, director of Maine's Board of Pesticides Control, say it's unclear how such a strategy would be implemented here. "Maine's kind of in this unique position of never having done any public health mosquito control work, therefore, not having the legal framework in order to do it," he says.

The bill would make it easier for towns to get the authority they need to implement a spray plan. This would mean relaxed landowner notification procedures in some circumstances. If Maine's health authorities determine there's an absolute mosquito emergency, then towns would not need to get permission to spray, something Jennings says has caused some alarm, especially among organic gardeners and bee keepers.

Because of the sensitivity around the issue of pesticides, state health officials say that expansion would have to come with a good reason - and, says Dr. Stephen Sears from Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Eastern equine encephalitis is a good reason.

"In the case of Eastern equine virus, we think that about 30 percent of people who get ill with it will actually die," Sears says. "So we're concerned because they're pretty serious diseases."

But some question the wisdom of an expanded pesticide application program, At a public hearing in Augusta for LD 292, Jon Olson from the Maine Farm Bureau warned that small growers would likely lose their status as organic farmers if their crops are in the line of fire. Olson said for at least one large organic blueberry farmer he knows, spray drift could spell disaster.

"If there's any residue on the product when he sells it to Japan because of aerial application to control mosquitos, he's going to lose his entire market," Olson told lawmakers.

A representative from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association testified that Maine's $91 million organics industry could be in jeopardy unless the focus is shifted away from spraying, and onto other preventative measures, such as personal bug repellent.

Rep. Willam Noon, of Sanford, sits on that joint committee, and is himself an organic sheep farmer. Noon told colleagues on the committee that he's opposed to expanded pesticides, and would rather rely on a more natural remedy to control mosquitos: "We have dragon flies," he said.

The committee is likely to discuss the bill and concerns raised about expanded spraying of pesticides during a work session next week.


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