Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Boulder County agrees to allow some GMOs on public land
By Laura Snider
Boulder Daily Camera
December 20, 2011
The Boulder County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to allow some genetically modified organisms to be grown on county-owned open space land.
All three commissioners agreed that farmers should be allowed to continue to plant corn that has been genetically engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate or to resist insects. Planting GMO corn was first approved in Boulder County in 2003.
And the commissioners supported the planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets, which also have been modified to resist glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup. But the commissioners said they would be reticent to approve any additional glyphosate-resistant crops that may be developed in the future.
The commissioners said they would consider GMO crops with other traits — such as drought resistance — in the future as they are developed.
“I don’t believe we should ban GMOs, but I do think we need to be very careful and limited in allowing them,” Commissioner Will Toor told the packed hearing room.
Tuesday’s vote ends a contentious public process that has dragged on for nearly three years.
The controversy was ignited after six farmers who lease land from the county asked for permission in December 2008 to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets. After a summer of packed public hearings and GMO protests, the county commissioners decided in August 2009 to delay a decision about GMO sugar beets until the open space department could create a comprehensive management plan for its 16,000 acres of cropland.
In February — after holding a series of seminars, panel discussions and farm tours — the county’s Parks and Open Space Department convened a nine-member volunteer panel to begin crafting the management plan. In October, the Cropland Policy Advisory Group released its draft plan, which called for allowing genetically modified crops when the benefits can be shown to outweigh the risks.
Two other county advisory boards weighed in on the draft in November, and both recommended modifying the draft to phase out GMOs.
Throngs of GMO proponents and opponents showed up at public meetings before the advisory boards and the county commissioners.
GMO opponents have argued that the plants are dangerous to human health, that they’re harmful to the land, that they support agribusiness corporations and that they will harm the “Boulder brand,” which buoys the local natural foods industry. GMO proponents have said the science shows GMOs are safe, that they help farmers get larger yields with fewer chemicals, and that they are necessary to keep local farmers competitive in the national and global markets.
On Tuesday afternoon, the county commissioners said they felt the original GMO recommendation developed by the Cropland Policy Advisory Group set a reasonable course.
All three commissioners — each of whom spent about half an hour explaining his or her decision — acknowledged that there are valid concerns with GMO crops, but they argued that, on balance, the benefits now outweigh the risks.
Toor supported a GMO ban on city land when he was mayor of Boulder, but he said Tuesday that the issue in the county was more complex and difficult and involved real trade-offs.
“(The Boulder ban) was essentially a symbolic decision because the city has very little cropland — there was very little direct impact,” he said. “The issue of GMOs on county land is quite different. When the discussion first came up, my instant reaction was, ‘Why would we even consider allowing GMOs?’ But unlike the city, the county has a large acreage of cropland. … It was clear that whatever decision we made, either direction, would have real on-the-ground impacts.”
As Toor studied the issue, he became more convinced that the peer-reviewed science did not support the claims that GMOs were imminently dangerous to public health. But Toor did express concerns about the overuse of the herbicide glyphosate. In other parts of the country, some issues — including the emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds — have arisen in fields where glyphosate-resistant crops are planted year after year.
In Boulder County, farmers typically rotate crops, following the planting of Roundup Ready corn, for example, with another crop like beans or small grains before returning to Roundup Ready corn.
Toor and the other commissioners said they are not interested in approving crops — such as Roundup Ready alfalfa — that would be planted on the same plot of land for multiple years, or approving other Roundup Ready crops beyond sugar beets that would be added into the farmers’ current rotations.
Commissioner Ben Pearlman, who worked in the open space department for years before becoming county commissioner, said it’s important to keep farmers on the land to act as stewards of that property. Therefore, the county needs to be careful not to adopt policies that would drive farmers away, he said.
“We need to keep farming this land,” he said. “If we don’t, it goes to weeds. It becomes unproductive, and we lose a piece of our heritage. We don’t want to take an action that either abruptly or slowly chases farmers away, and we’re left with fewer and fewer options.”
Commissioner Cindy Domenico, whose own agricultural heritage stretches back to the 1880s, when her ancestors began farming in Lafayette, lamented the tone of the debate in regards to how farmers have been portrayed.
“Making the farmer the villain in this discussion is not appropriate,” she said. “They are partners in stewardship of this land. They give us foods on the table as well as views of the mountains.”
Domenico also said that many of the public requests were for extreme action on one side of the debate or the other.
“We seem to live in a time of all-or-nothing demands,” she said. “It is as if we have lost touch with the fact that the middle way is almost always the best way. As county commissioners, we’re responsible for making public policy decisions. It’s not about one side winning or losing. It’s about crafting meaningful public policy. … I’m convinced that our farmers have the skill and heart to coexist.”
Local farmer Paul Schlagel, who now grows Roundup Ready sugar beets on his own property, said after the meeting that he was grateful the county commissioners decided to allow GMOs. Now, he said, the farmers have to keep up their end of the deal to be good stewards of the land and to coexist with others.
“We have a lot of work to do as farmers to make this work for the county,” he said.
Schlagel also said he and other farmers are still willing to sit down with the GMO opponents to discuss how they can help protect the “Boulder brand.”
Mary Smith, who has helped organize a vocal group of anti-GMO activists, said the commissioners ignored the will of the people.
“We’ve got a small special-interest group that is dictating what happens on the land that all of us purchased,” she said.
Smith also said that Tuesday’s vote does not represent the end of the issue for them.
“The frustration is not going to end,” she said. “The citizens now have something to marshal behind.”
Last we knew: Both the Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee and the Food and Agriculture Policy Council voted to phase out GMOs over time.
Latest: The Boulder County commissioners voted to allow some GMOs, including corn, which is already allowed, and sugar beets. The commissioners also said they would consider other GMOs in the future as they are developed.
Next: The Parks and Open Space Department will come up with a proposed set of guidelines for planting GMO sugar beets and a process for evaluating future GMO crops.