Colorado ag panel discusses GMOs, other hot-button issues
March 17, 2014
The question was asked: Is the conversation surrounding issues in agriculture more emotional today than ever before?
Responding before the crowd that gathered at the University of Northern Colorado for the day's panel on Colorado agriculture, Paul Sater, a Kersey-area farmer, threw in his two cents.
His answer was, "yes."
He explained only a generation or two ago, everyone was just a grandfather or other relative away from the farm or ranch, and now, with only about one percent of the population involved in ag, an unknowing public has questions — leading some to even have suspicions.
"In absence of reason, you have emotion," he said. "That's where we are today."
Looking to take emotion out of the ag-conversation equation and instead provide information for voters on Colorado agriculture was the goal of the League of Women Voters of Greeley-Weld County, who hosted the event, held in UNC's Milne Auditorium in Kepner Hall.
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On the panel was Bill Jerke, a LaSalle-area farmer and former Weld County commissioner and state legislator; Brent Lahman, relationship manager at Rabo AgriFinance in Loveland; Ray Peterson, a Nunn-area rancher who serves as president of the Weld County Farmers Union and as a board member of the Weld County Livestock Association; Luke Runyon, agribusiness reporter for KUNC and Harvest Public Media, the latter of which is a reporting collaboration of several public media stations across the country that covers issues related to food and food production; and Sater, a rancher and farmer with experience in the dairy industry.
One of the topics brought up most was that of the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in food production.
The farmers and ranchers on the panel explained to the crowd that humans have been genetically modifying crops and livestock for thousands of years, through cross-breeding.
"Now, it's just being done in a lab," Jerke said. "That's the only difference."
Jerke also stressed that he has no issue with labeling food that contains GMOs on a voluntary basis, but not making it mandatory, which has been a ballot measure in some states recently. Jerke said he was fine letting the producer or processor use the "GMO-free" label simply as a marketing tool, like the "organic" label is used.
He and others on the panel further noted, though, that true GMO-free food might be tough to come by, because of genetic engineering's deep roots historically in human food production.
Peterson further stressed the need for genetic modifying, explaining that his wheat crop one year was wiped out by pests, before using a wheat variety that was resistant to it.
Let The Market Decide
When asked by the crowd if certain factors in today's food market were good or bad for farmers and ranchers (consumers preferring organic over conventional, or consumers moving toward buying from "local" or "smaller" producers, or how cheap food is in the U.S. compared to other countries), producers on the panel all simply said they were fine letting the markets decide.
Jerke stressed that there's "no simple answers" to the issue of groundwater management in the area, and noted that the Ogallala Aquifer — one of the world's largest aquifers, underlying portions of eight states, including far east Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas — is being mined and not replenished at an alarming rate, and could become a major issue for the U.S.
He further stressed agriculture's needs for the completion of two area water-storage projects still in the works — the Northern Integrated Supply Project, which if approved would include two new reservoirs and provide 40,000 acre feet water to northern Colorado, and prevent the drying up of about 60,000 acres of farmground, according to supporters' studies; and the Chatfield Reallocation, an endeavor that would raise the Denver-area lake by as much as 12 feet, and, in doing so, provide additional water for area farmers and others. In reference to the Chatfield project, Jerke said he didn't understand why the studies and mitigation efforts to raise an existing reservoir by just 12 feet would cost the $183 million it's slated to.
Other Issues Discussed
• Panelists all spoke of the need for young people to replace an aging farming population, but some said the amount of capital it takes for young people to get into agriculture is too much, and added regulations make it difficult for starting and smaller farms, Sater noted.
"The large, mega producers are the only one's who can keep complying with them."
• Panelists and crowd members alike asked "who should be doing the research" on GMOs and other issues in agriculture … "and who should be funding the research?"
• Sater stressed that one of his biggest needs is labor, but there's no affordable way to bring to the U.S. the migrant workers who are willing to do the work.
"I do need labor, but don't know what to do about it," Sater said.
Lahman said some of his customers tell him that labor shortages is the No. 1 issue they have.
• Peterson and Sater stressed to the crowd that while "corporate" farming carries a negative connotation in the consumer world, their family owned farms technically fall under the "corporate farm" label.
• In discussing whether or not producers preferred state regulations vs. federal regulation, producers said they were generally against regulation altogether, but preferred state-by-state regulations — although Runyon noted that arguments have been made against extensive state-by-state regulations, which could create an overall patchwork policy for the country and cause disruptions in the markets. ❖