The proposed plan to ban GMOs in Boulder County would be a first in agriculture-heavy counties

Shelli Mader
Sugar beet crops field, agricultural landscape
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

Boulder County Elections

Democrats Elise Jones and Deb Gardner were re-elected to the Boulder County Commission, beating their Republican challengers by a wide margin. Both commissioners support the plan to phase out the use of GMO crops on Boulder County public land.

If Boulder County, Colo., follows through on a plan to phase out the production of GMO crops on public lands, it will be wading into uncharted territory. Only a handful of counties in the nation have a GMO crop cultivation ban, but those counties don’t have the same type or scale of production agriculture as Boulder.

The first county in the nation to ban GMO crop cultivation and production was Mendocino County in California back in 2004. Several other California counties followed suit, but according to Renee Pinel, president and CEO of Western Plant Health Association the GMO bans in California have not had much or any impact on farmers. Western Plant Health Association is an organization that represents a variety of agriculture companies in California, Arizona and Hawaii.

“In California, any county GMO ban that has been passed has only been passed in non-agricultural counties, or in counties where there are no GMO trait crops grown,” Pinel said. “Counties where there is commercial agriculture like (Boulder County) have rejected these types of bans.”

Counties in Hawaii have attempted to ban GMO crops, but they haven’t succeeded.

“Where bans were attempted, farmers intervened legally and the courts found that the bans were illegal,” Pinel said. “The farmers who intervened, particularly papaya growers, would not be able to remain in business at all as the only control to stop a disease blight in papayas that grow in Hawaii is via GMO traits.”

Both Washington and Oregon have county GMO bans in place, but those counties have a completely different landscape and crop production system than Boulder County.

San Juan County, Wash., is located in the far northwestern corner of the state. It’s a county comprised of more than 400 islands — with most of the area’s 15,000 people clustered on four main islands. No GMO crops are known to be grown in the county, but Ken Akopiantz of Horse Drawn Farm was worried about the potential, so in 2011 he began a campaign called GMO-Free San Juans.

A 2012 initiative was overwhelmingly passed in the county. It banned GMO seeds for landscaping plants and seeds planted for food. The ban had little to no impact on the farmers in the area since no one was using GMO seed. The success of the campaign encouraged GMO-free San Juan to mobilize and make their campaign strategy and marketing materials available to other interested counties across the country.

Jackson County, Ore., also passed a ban on GMO crops. When organic farmers in the county learned Syngenta set up a plot to test Roundup resistant sugar beets, they launched an effort to prevent GMO crops from being grown there. The measure passed in 2014, but it only affected Syngenta and a few alfalfa farmers.

“We don’t grow many GMO crops here,” Jackson County, Oregon Farm Bureau President and farmer Ron Bjork said. “So we haven’t really felt much of an impact from the ban. There isn’t a lot of regulation or enforcement of the law either, and you can’t tell if alfalfa is GMO or not without testing it, so nothing has really changed. The ban caused Syngenta to shut down their test plot, but they just moved it to another nearby county.”

Though farmers in Jackson County haven’t seen an effect from the GMO ban yet, Bjork wondered if they would in the future.

“There is a lot of cannabis grown in Jackson County — there is a grower with over 8,000 plants down the road from where I am at. Most cannabis is genetically modified. It will be interesting to see what happens with that down the road,” Bjork said.

In 2013 Oregon passed a law that prevents local governments from regulating GMO crops. Jackson County is exempt from the law because the county’s GMO ban was already pending. Josephine County, just west of Jackson county also passed a measure to ban GMO crops, but their ban didn’t qualify for the exemption because it passed after the state law was in place.

No counties with a high-level of commercial agriculture have passed a GMO ban.

“All of my ancestors are farmers in the Midwest,” Boulder County farmer Dick Miller said. “They can’t comprehend or dream that a ban like this is being considered here.”

Farmer’s Alliance for Integrated Resources (FAIR), a group of Boulder County family farmers, sent the Boulder County Commissioners a 10-page list of questions about the transition plan. They cite lack of local research and sustainability issues as some of their biggest concerns about the phase out.

FAIR recommends the county partner with Colorado State University to conduct comprehensive local research on a variety of cropping systems to determine the best environmentally and economically sustainable method of farming for the region.

Boulder County will continue to debate the GMO phase out plan this month. The local 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 Boulder County Commissioners will hold its own public hearing on the plan. ❖