Boulder County looking at whether GMOs have a future on public land
While the farming of genetically-engineered crops has been a hot-button topic everywhere, in Boulder, Colo., the issue is molten.
Boulder County began purchasing cropland in the 1980s for open space lands and to lease to farmers wishing to expand their privately owned crops. The county currently owns 25,000 acres, 16,000 of which have been leased to farmers for croplands.
Genetically-engineered crops have been allowed on these public lands since 2003.
In 2011, in the face of protests from natural food proponents, organic farmers and anti-GMO activists, the county adopted a controversial five-year crop policy that set down specific rules for public croplands, allowing the planting of GE corn and sugar beets.
Now the policy is up for renewal, and the fight for the open space has again been taken up. One side wants only organic foods grown on the public lands. The other side wants to not only continue the use of GE crops, but hopes to add Round Up-Ready alfalfa to the mix. Arguments both for and against the GE crops range from the question of what is considered sustainable to the science behind how safe GE crops actually are to what it is the Boulder County taxpayers want.
The purpose of the cropland policy is “to be a national leader in sustainable agriculture.” There is some debate as to what that sustainability looks like.
The section of the policy under question is Section 6.1, under the heading “Genetically Engineered Crops.” This section allows GE crops to be planted on public lands only when “the benefits from the planting of a federally-approved GE crop will surpass the known and potential risks associated with adoption of the GE technology.”
The policy recognizes that seed used in GE farming has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. The policy also calls for continued study of GE crops, crop rotation of Round Up-Ready crops to prevent weed resistance to the herbicide, and compliance with pest management goals, including the monitoring of Bt corn, engineered to deal with specific pesticide-resistant pests.
While the 2011 policy allows GE farming, it also recognizes the importance of organic farming. Section 1 of the policy states a goal of seeing 20 percent of open space cropland supporting organic farms by 2020. Organic farming lessees looking to attain USDA organic certification are charged rents reduced by 50 percent in their first five years of operation, receive county assistance with certification costs not covered by USDA programs and other forms of assistance. Despite these efforts, 19 of 24 organic farms taking advantage of these programs have failed since their institution. But that has not kept Boulder County from keeping up with its efforts for organic farms.
According to date presented to the Boulder County Board of Commissioners by the Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee in a March 17 public meeting, certified and transitioning organic farms occupying public lands have risen from 724 acres in 2011 to 2,416 acres in 2015.
The debate about whether GE crops should be allowed on public lands appears to center around the science of the issue as much as it does around the public opinion of the issue. Both sides quote oppositional studies and claim they are backing their positions with science.
In a statement on March 17, Boulder County commissioner Cindy Domenico said she found that “major scientific bodies don’t align with the polarized sides of the (GE crop safety) debate” and that GE plants are “no riskier than conventional plants.” But Commissioner Elise Jones also fell back on science at the same meeting when she said in her statement that she felt that pesticide use presented an “incredible potential for health impacts on both humans and the environment.”
The use of glyphosate, the main component of herbicide Round Up, is one of the top focuses in the scientific struggle over the safety of GE crops. “Round Up-Ready” crops, such as corn and sugar beets, are engineered to be used in conjunction with Round Up.
Several arguments in a public forum held Feb. 29 in Longmont expressed concern that the World Health Organization had recently declared glyphosate a “probable carcinogen.” But Daniel Goldstein, former Boulder County resident and current Monsanto employee in medical sciences and outreach, told the forum it was not the WHO that made the declaration, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
The study by IARC was not backed up by the Environmental Protection Agency, WHO, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, or the European Food Safety Authority. A section of the IARC presentation admits the study was limited.
Environmental concerns have also been voiced. Organic farmers and their supporters feel that GE farming is not sustainable farming, due, in a large part to the use of pesticides and herbicides that may have environmental impacts on pollinators.
A study presented June 16, 2015 to the Boulder County BOCC on cropping systems suggested otherwise. Referred to as “The White Paper,” the study measured the environmental impact of the cropping systems used in Boulder County and found that organic farming left a much larger carbon footprint than either conventional or GE farming.
Plant pathologist Rebecca Larson of Longmont spoke at the Feb. 29 forum about the impact of GE farming.
“We’re growing the same amount of sugar today that we did ten years ago but on one-third fewer acres,” Larson said. “We’re using 37 percent less pesticides.”
She also talked about how much more land organic farming would require, telling the BOCC it would take up more acreage than all of the national parks in the lower 48 states combined to match the production of GE crops.
For those without a scientific argument, the issue came down to the will of the voters.
Polls on whether GE crops should be allowed on public lands fluctuate. A poll by Tommy Drake Research in 2011 showed that 47 percent of voters supported in the cropland policy as opposed to 41 percent who were against it. But a poll by GMO-free Boulder in 2012 showed 56 percent of those polled were against GE crops on public lands.
Boulder has a vision to be national leaders in sustainable farming and it has been gaining a reputation as a leader in the natural foods industry. The county is seeing a shift away from GE foods, and many organic farmers have expressed a concern that allowing GE crops on taxpayer-purchased public lands will hurt that image.
In a statement at the March 17 public meeting, Jones said she did not want to be answering the question about whether GE crops should be allowed on public lands because she found the question “narrow, divisive and small.” She felt that a bigger question was in play.
“What is the role of Boulder County agricultural open space in achieving our vision of being national leaders in sustainable agriculture?” Jones asked. “GMOs are not in keeping with the vision he have.”
There has not yet been a formal vote, but the Boulder County BOCC has recommended GE crops be phased off of public lands over a period of several years and asked POSAC and county employees to provide sustainable alternatives. ❖