Despite farmer concerns, Boulder County will phase out all genetically engineered crops on public lands | TheFencePost.com

Despite farmer concerns, Boulder County will phase out all genetically engineered crops on public lands

Shelli Mader

Despite strong opposition from area farmers, Boulder County Commissioners, in a 2-1 vote, approved a proposal to ban genetically modified corn and sugar beets on county-owned farmland.

Under the plan, farmers will phase out genetically engineered corn on public lands by the end of 2019 and GE sugar beets by the end of 2021.

Boulder county commissioners Elise Jones and Deb Gardner voted in favor of the plan. Commissioner Cindy Domenico voted against it.

"I didn't support this plan to start with," Domenico said. "I think we have done our due diligence through our cropland policy both in the mid 2000s and then again in 2011. Science and data say that GE's are safe. They are a tool in the toolbox for our farm and ranch folks out there to maximize their economic stability and feed the world – something that farm operators often talk about."

“We are still contemplating our next step because we have a set of county commissioners who think this is just an agenda item and they don’t want to listen to anything that is science-based that is associated with it. This amounts to fulfilling an election promise to a very small minority of people.”

Farmer's Alliance for Integrated Resources, a group of Boulder County family farmers, agrees with Domenico and has worked for months to encourage commissioners Jones and Gardner to conduct comprehensive local research on a variety of cropping systems for the region before they implement a phase-out plan.

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At the commissioner's most recent meeting on Nov. 30, Famuer Rasmussen, a third-generation farmer and member of FAIR addressed commissioners Jones and Gardner.

"You have consistently shown us that you don't care at all what we have to say," Rasmussen said. "We brought as many farmers as we could to your structured meetings back in February, including experienced farmers, young farmers, and farmers who grow both organic and GMOs. We had a line of farmer after farmer after farmer trying to speak to you during the 11-hour public hearing. We've sent you emails. We've tried to get you to listen to us and respect our position in every conversation we've had. Your actions up to this point have made it clear that you simply don't care."

According to Sundari Kraft, FAIR representative, Jones and Gardner denied the FAIR farmers request to examine scientific consensus and implement a local research plan to explore the environmental and economic sustainability of alternate cropping systems before mandating a transition away from the farming techniques that are currently working for Boulder County farmers.

"Jones and Gardner acknowledged that although it seemed like they were putting the cart before the horse but that it was necessary to set transition deadlines prior to beginning any research because otherwise government moves too slowly and nothing would get done," Kraft said. "In doing so, Jones and Gardner are placing the burden for a self-admitted government deficiency on the backs of family farmers, whose ability to grow crops sustainably will be crippled by this unscientific mandate."

As of presstime, neither Jones nor Gardner could be reached for comment.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

Both Jones and Gardner have lived in Boulder County for more than 20 years and have spent much of their careers in environmental advocacy. Jones holds a bachelor's degree in natural resources and a master's degree in resource policy, planning and administration. She served as executive director for the Colorado Environmental Coalition for 13 years where she worked to protect local ecosystems and open spaces. She's also been a director for the League of Conservation Voters and a project coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation.

Gardner holds degrees in biology and accounting. She's served as a Colorado legislator, chair and treasurer of the Boulder County Democratic Party, senior accountant for Eco-cycle and assistant controller at Western Disposal Services.

During their 2012 election campaigns, both commissioners expressed their opposition to allowing GMO crops to be grown on county-owned lands.

In March, commissioners Jones and Gardner directed the Boulder County Parks and Open Space Department to create the GMO phase-out plan. Since then, the POSD and commissioners have held numerous meetings and public hearings to discuss the plan. On June 1, FAIR farmers submitted a 10-page list of legal, financial and logistical questions about the transition plan.

"These questions remain unanswered, but Jones and Gardner have nonetheless started the clock on a GMO ban," Kraft said.

According to Commissioner Domenico, the phase-out plan will be signed soon at a regular business meeting. The plan is essentially the same as the draft plan developed in March but it has a few additions discussed at the recent meeting.

"Though I didn't approve of the plan, I did get two things added to it," she said. "There will be a study done to understand the economic impact on the farmers and there will be an annual plan review. In addition, the timeline for the plan was settled on middle ground. I wanted the transition (to phase out GMO corn and sugar beets to take five and seven years and another commissioner wanted it to take one and three years. We settled on three and five years."

RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY

In the next month, a request for proposal will be released to find partners to conduct research.

"The research will be concurrent with the phase-out plan," Domenico said. "I was hoping that we could leave the door open for other GEs should something come forward, say drought resistant wheat or other things like that. I think the qualifier my colleagues noted was GEs were OK if they are not used with roundup or other pesticides. There is a provision in our cropland policy to review this if another crop should come forward."

Boulder county owns approximately 25,000 acres of agricultural land and leases it to farmers. Of that land, 16,000 acres is cropland. Only about 2,000 of those acres are planted with genetically engineered crops. About 1,200 acres is planted in GE corn and the rest is planted in GE sugar beets.

Only a few other counties in the nation have banned GE crops. However, none of these bans have had much or any impact on area farmers. Several counties in California and one in Washington ban GMOs, but none of these counties have land that grows GMO crops.

Jackson County, Ore., banned GMO crops a few years ago, but the land in the county doesn't grow any GMO plants except a bit of alfalfa. The ban isn't enforced, so according to Oregon Farm Bureau President and farmer Ron Bjork, none of the farmers in the county were affected. The bans only impact was to force Syngenta to move their test plot of Roundup-resistant sugar beets to a nearby county.

In 2013, Oregon passed a law that prevents local governments from regulating GMO crops, so no other county can pass a GMO ban.

Boulder County's GMO ban is the first of its kind. Area farmers know that they are wading into uncharted territory.

"We are still contemplating our next step because we have a set of county commissioners who think this is just an agenda item and they don't want to listen to anything that is science-based that is associated with it," Boulder County farmer Dan Lisco said. "This amounts to fulfilling an election promise to a very small minority of people."❖

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