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Organic Farmers Criticize Presentation Endorsed By State Pesticides Board
01/09/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Included in the list of programs at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show this week was one titled: "Talking About Pesticides with Customers and Neighbors." Sponsored by the Maine Board of Pesticides Control the session was initially billed as a way for pesticide applicators in Maine to learn how to effectively communicate "nightmare scenarios." It featured a leading authority on the topic. The two-day session has offended some in the organic farming community who are upset with the message it sends as well as its timing.

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This is the second time the Maine Board of Pesticides Control has brought Dr. Vincent Covello of the Center of Risk Communication to Augusta to meet with farmers. They paid him six thousand dollars for a two-day presentation that lasted about four hours.

"And the reason we wanted him to come here is it's so difficult for producers and other people who use pesticides to effectively communicate with their customers, their neighbors and the public in general about pesticide risks," said Henry Jennings, director for the Board of Pesticides Control.

The board is mandated by the Legislature to help farmers reduce their reliance on pesticides. In recent years public notification about pesticide application has become a thorny issue for the board, farmers, lawmakers and concerned members of the public. That's because a notification system set up to inform property owners when growers were spraying nearby was dismantled by the Legislature. It was then replaced with a voluntary system that critics such as Heather Spaulding of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardners Association view as less transparent.

"The problem is that the pesticides industry wants to limit the access to information that people have, the access to information that people have about pesticide exposure," said Spaulding.

She said against this backdrop she was disheartened to learn that the Board was bringing in Dr. Covello to teach pesticide applicators how to spin their message. Over the past two decades Covello has held positions in academia and government including as an Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences and Clinical Medicine at Columbia University. His clients have included the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Chemical Manufacturers Association.

"It just seemed a bit suspect that here was somebody who worked very closely with all the chemical industry and the pesticide manufacturers coming in to teach people to talk to the public about pesticide spraying," Spaulding said.

During his first presentation to about 75 farmers at the Augusta Civic Center Covello did not take a general position on pesticide application. But he did come to the defense of Alar. Alar was an additive used to prevent apples from ripening too early. Covello worked on crisis communication around the great apple scare in 1989. Alar was eventually removed from the marketplace in the United States. Covello said a 60 Minutes expose that attacked it as the most toxic substance in America's food supply was a big factor in getting it banned.

"The issue was not a well-told story. There was no narrative that the public could follow and the end result was because of that negative dominance people tend to focus on the negative than the positive," Covello. "For all effective purposes people stopped eating apples."

While some may call him a "spin doctor" or criticize risk communication as a substitute for action and regulation Covello said his principles are grounded in the facts. But his first piece of advice is to always demonstrate compassion or caring.

"The key principle of risk communication is to tell the truth but tell it well and that's the whole purpose of my presentation is how to tell the truth well," he said.

But for organic dairy farmer and MOFGA board member Spencer Atel of South China, Covello's message and his invitation by the Board of Pesticide Control couldn't have come at a worse time. Just last month, Russell Libby, the longtime executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association died after a struggle with cancer. Libby was dedicated to the promotion of organic farming and to the education of the public about the harm caused by synthetic pesticides.

"This is a real slap in the face to us to try to figure out how the department thought it was justifiable to put someone whose real message is how to talk to the public about your pesticide use in the face of our recent loss," said Atel.

On the same day that Dr. Covello was teaching farmers how to communicate pesticide risks, Russell Libby's family was at the same trade show posthumously accepting an award from the governor and the agriculture commissioner on the MOFGA leader's behalf.


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