Farmers concerned about plan to phase out the use of genetically engineered crops | TheFencePost.com
Shelli Mader

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Farmers concerned about plan to phase out the use of genetically engineered crops

Boulder County farmers are voicing concerns about a proposed plan to phase out the use of genetically engineered corn and sugar beets on county-owned farmland.

Under the draft plan, the crops would be eliminated through the next 3 to 5 years. GE corn would be phased-out by the end of 2019, while sugar beets would be phased-out by 2021.

Paul Schlagel, a fourth generation Boulder County farmer, leases county-owned land to grow GE corn and sugar beets. One of his main concerns is the plan doesn't outline what crops he and other tenant farmers are supposed to plant instead of the GE ones.

"The crops that are grown in Boulder County are a direct response to the dry climate and shortage of water in the region. Sugar beets have been grown for over 120 years, and barley is also grown due to these resource shortages," he said. "We have increased our corn yields tremendously in the last several years and our sugar beet yields have almost doubled since we introduced GE technology. The question is: What are we supposed to grow? I don't see where this transition leads. We should use science to make these kinds of decisions."

Schlagel is not the only farmer who has questions. Dozens of others voiced their concern at recent public meetings.

In March, two of the county's three elected commissioners, Elise Jones and Deb Gardner, directed the Boulder County Parks and Open Space Department to create a plan to phase out all of the GE crops on the county land. The idea sparked hours of public testimony on the topic.

"This is a very controversial subject," said Jeff Moline, the interim Parks and Open Space Department's ag resources manager. "We are working with both tenants and citizens to address their concerns."

Boulder County owns approximately 25,000 acres of agricultural land and leases it to farmers. Of that land, 16K 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.

"Of the 80 or 90 farmers we lease land to, 13 of those grow GE crops," Moline said.

On Oct. 24 the department held an open house presentation of the draft GMO phase-out plan. Over 20 people attended the meeting and many more left comments online.

Only 3 of the online comments published by open space department were from citizens in support of the complete elimination of GE crops on the county-owned land.

Mary Mulry, a Boulder County resident, likes the plan, but hopes the transition timeline will be shortened.

"There are other crops that can be used instead of GMO crops in transition and we all know that. The farmers are farming a public resource and we want that resource to be farmed without GMOs," she posted online. "We must not leave it solely to the tenants to decide what they are going to grow. I recommend that you ask farmers to transition out of conventional corn and sugar beets immediately with the 2017 crop year. The farmers need to diversify their holdings and grow crops with better rates of return than the commodity crops they are growing."

Farmers Alliance for Integrated Resources, a group of Boulder County farmers formed to promote diverse and sustainable agricultural practices within the county, hasn't made a formal statement of the plan yet because they have dozens of questions they want answered. The group's questions to the department included a variety of topics like water resources, pesticides, finances and research.

"The farmers of (Farmers Alliance for Integrated Resources) do not agree with the decision to mandate a transition away from Bt/Roundup Ready corn and Roundup Ready sugar beets on county land, as we recognize that both local data and global scientific consensus support the sustainability of precision agriculture methods," Schlagel, a represented, said in an email to the Parks and Open Space Department. "Farmers are the original environmentalists, and we take our commitment as stewards of the land seriously. It is not logical or fair for the county to ask us to farm less sustainably than we are now — and that is the assured outcome if we are forced to give up the technologies we are using now, guided only by the skeletal framework currently laid out in the draft transition plan."

The farmers group also has a variety of concerns about what using non-GMO corn and sugar beets in their fields will do to their livelihood and the land itself.

Sugar beet farmers are in contracts to produce their acreage share of sugar beets annually. No seed company in the United States has non-GMO seed that is produced in the U.S. In addition, according to the farm group, it takes 10-12 years for a new sugar beet hybrid to be developed for an area. No one has bred non-GMO sugar beets for the Boulder County area for over a decade.

Non-GMO corn requires more frequent use of pesticides. Farmers question how and where they will sell, store and separate GMO corn from non-GMO corn.

The debate on the issue will continue into November. The Parks and Open Space Department will hold a public meeting on Nov. 17 to make recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners. On Nov. 30, the Board of County Commissioners will hold its own public hearing on the plan.

In addition, commissioners Elise Jones and Deb Gardner are up for re-election in November. Neither of their republican challengers, Kevin Sipple and Pail Danish are completely opposed to the use of GE crops. ❖