UNITY — The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association expressed great disappointment with Gov. Janet Mills’ veto of a bill that would put an end to the practice of aerially spraying glyphosate and other herbicides over plantation forest land in Maine. The bill, sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, was enacted in the Legislature with bipartisan support earlier this month, only to be vetoed minutes before a veto deadline June 25.

“Gov. Mills’ decision to prop up interests of a toxic, destructive, foreign-owned company over the the health and well-being of Maine citizens and forest ecosystems is astounding,” said Heather Spalding, MOFGA deputy director. “The veto letter is a smoke and mirrors defense of an industry struggling with addiction to carcinogenic chemicals. Maine deserves better.”

MOFGA, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer, has advocated for farm and forest management practices that emphasize soil health and avoid the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Reducing Maine’s reliance on pesticides and banning aerial spraying of these chemicals has been the focus of many MOFGA policy initiatives through years.

“We are so grateful to Sen. Jackson for his leadership on this very challenging issue for so many years,” Spalding said. “So many legislators stepped forward in support of this bill and we were very encouraged by the votes in the House and Senate. The veto stings pretty badly after so much careful thought and civic engagement went into the campaign. We’re not giving up.”

This bill was a long time in the making and included extensive input from a diverse base of stakeholders — from loggers to farmers to medical professionals to educators to environmental organizations to wildlife biologists and forest ecologists. The bill had bipartisan sponsorship and optimism from people whose livelihood depends on a vibrant forest products economy.

“It’s such a shame that Gov. Mills has chosen to side with foreign corporate interests over the health and economic well-being of Maine people and environment,” Spalding said. “Public awareness about the threats that pesticides pose to human health and the environment is increasing dramatically in Maine, across the country and around the world. Gov. Mills missed a landmark opportunity to advocate for people who live, work and play in and near Maine’s forest lands.”

Documents from Maine’s Department of Forestry indicate that roughly 15,000 acres or forest land are sprayed aerially with herbicides each year, and J.D. Irving sprays more herbicides than all other major forest landowners combined.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp products, is the most commonly used herbicide in forestry. Roughly 15,000 acres of clearcut Maine woodlands are aerially doused with glyphosate each year. In addition to being classified by the World Health Organization as a probable human carcinogen, glyphosate is linked to chromosomal damage, fetal development harm, reduced liver and kidney function, and endocrine system disruption.

The chemical giant Bayer (which purchased Monsanto in 2018) paid a settlement of $9.2 billion for more than 100,000 plaintiffs asserting they had contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma from glyphosate exposure. Now the company intends to pay another $2 billion to cover claims over the next four years. Glyphosate now is banned or restricted in 17 countries worldwide.

Advocates for the bill also raised concerns about the devastating effects that aerial herbicide spraying has on wildlife habitat and food supply. Recent studies show that some herbicides persist in soil for months or even years. Glyphosate is also toxic to amphibians, and soil fungi.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported in December 2020 that 93% of the plants and animals on the endangered species list and 96% of their habitat were directly threatened by glyphosate. The Journal of Molecular Biology and Evolution reported that soils sprayed with weedkillers glyphosate, glufosinate, or dicamba are likely to contain higher amounts of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Last month, the Journal of Applied Ecology reported that “inert” ingredients in pesticide formulations can be equally or more harmful to bees than the active ingredients, while another journal, Frontiers in Environmental Science, released a comprehensive review of 400 studies on the impacts of pesticides on soil health, concluding that pesticides harmed beneficial, soil-dwelling invertebrates including earthworms, ants, beetles and ground nesting bees in 71% of cases reviewed.

MOFGA-certified organic farmers have struggled with the real and present danger of pesticide drift from aerial spray operations. Pesticides can travel great distances — even miles. Because contaminated produce cannot be marketed as organic, farm families whose land is contaminated by pesticide drift must surrender their organic certification for three years, through no fault of their own. One such farm is the Gerritsen family’s Wood Prairie Farm in the unorganized territory of Central Aroostook County.

“Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash and his LD 125 Aerial Herbicide Spray Ban bill have broad public support, most especially from residents close to the Maine woods,” Jim Gerritsen said. “It’s extremely disheartening that Gov. Mills chose to side with Canadian monopolist JD Irving and industrial forest owners over the Maine citizens who elected her.”

According to Maine’s Department of Forestry, the state’s reliance on herbicides for forestry management is increasing. In 2018, acres of Maine forest sprayed with aerial herbicides exceeded the 11-year average by 69%.

“MOFGA was honored to have a seat on the Natural and Working Lands Working Group of Gov. Mills’ Climate Council,” Spalding said. “It’s astounding that proponents of monoculture, plantation forestry management describe their practices as climate friendly. Clearcutting vast acreage of forest and then spraying it with toxic pesticides, flies in the face of Gov. Mill’s ambitious climate action plan. Soil disturbance and decomposition of organic matter caused by clearcutting and subsequent herbicide spraying actually leads to substantial net carbon emissions, which scientists indicate can last for up to 15 years.”

Aerial spraying is banned or severely restricted in many other parts of the world. Recognizing environmental and human health concerns from pesticides drift, Vermont banned the aerial spraying of herbicides for forestry almost 25 years ago in 1997. The Province of Quebec banned the use of pesticides in forestry management in 2001, and, in 2009, the European Union banned aerial spraying of pesticides with some highly restricted exceptions. Here in Maine, the Township of Allagash and Brighton Plantation have banned aerial and ground spraying of pesticides for forestry purposes. The town of Sweden has banned aerial spraying of herbicides and pesticides.

More than 30 municipalities in Maine have restricted the use or sale of pesticides, and many more towns have pesticide ordinances in the works.

“When Maine and the federal government fail to act, communities take matters into their own hands. These are direct responses to the state’s lack of meaningful action on reducing reliance on pesticides,” Spalding said. “Gov. Mills recently allocated $50 million for infrastructure improvements to ensure the safety of our drinking water. Think of the taxpayer dollars that could be reallocated to building a vibrant Maine woods economy if we just turned off the pesticides tap and avoided spreading toxic chemicals into the environment in the first place.”

MOFGA has pledged ongoing support for legislation banning aerial herbicide spraying in the North Woods.