This weekend’s Denver Post covers the story, explaining why Boulder County, and all of us, should choose science over fear tactics.
Boulder County this month continued its misguided campaign against agricultural science when it doubled down on the expulsion of genetically engineered crops on leased county land.
This is a jurisdiction that prides itself on residents’ educational attainment and scientific savvy. If a candidate for commissioner were to express doubt regarding scientific consensus on the human contribution to global warming, she would be hooted at during every forum on the campaign trail. But let that same commissioner dismiss a similar scientific consensus that GMO crops are both safe and brimming with potential to alleviate agricultural and environmental challenges around the world, and she’ll be given a pass — or even applauded.
Last year Boulder County informed farmers growing GMO crops on leased open space that they would have to stop, and issued deadlines — a three-year “transition” from GMO corn and five years for GMO sugar beets.
The commission reaffirmed its decision this month with the adoption of a final transition plan, which in fact offers no substantive route for targeted farmers.
Now, ironically, the county is considering bids for a study to determine, among other things, whether alternative agricultural practices can provide farmers with yields and income “comparable to [genetically engineered] crops.”
Notice anything odd about this chronology?
In a rational world, that order would have been reversed. Responsible officials would have satisfied themselves that farmers who plant GMO corn or sugar beets had viable options before imposing a ban on them. They’d also have done their homework to “test current and proposed agricultural production practices for environmental benefits” — another goal of the study — before cracking down on a form of agriculture that is quite probably more environmentally friendly than both the conventional and organic farming that exists in Boulder County.
Dutiful officials would want to nail down, for example, which practices viable in our semi-arid West release the least carbon and require the least amount of water and fuel, and they’d want to quantify the amount of toxic substances used to control weeds and pests, since organic farming is hardly blameless in that regard. And they’d have done this legwork before banishing the operations of farmers who in some cases have grown corn or sugar beets there for decades.
But the two Boulder County commissioners who ordered the crackdown, Elise Jones and Deb Gardner, were in a hurry to impose their political vision on local farmers.
And notice the timetable: The study cannot possibly be under way in time for the 2017 growing season, reducing the chance that meaningful findings even in future years will arrive in time to either assist or perhaps vindicate the farmers now facing deadlines.
Still, Boulder County’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Innovation Initiative could be valuable if done properly and not tilted toward a predetermined outcome. And yet this too appears in doubt since both Jones and Gardner over the past year have indicated their desire to see the county partner with Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute, which is hostile to GMO crops and critical of conventional farming while promoting the dubious idea that organic agriculture is a key to saving the planet.
Unfortunately for Jones and Gardner, however, Rodale was not the only outfit to bid on the county’s request for proposals. Another bid was submitted by Fort Collins-based Mountain High Research, with an impressive list of scientific and technical collaborators. Assuming the process isn’t rigged, Mountain High would be the logical choice.
Boulder County has 25,000 acres of open space dedicated to agriculture and ranching, with 16,000 acres in cropland. And it has an active policy of favoring organic farming in an effort to reach a 2020 goal of 20 percent organic crops. To that end, organic operations enjoy drastically reduced rents, infrastructure assistance and even a “weed team” to help control weeds. And yet despite these advantages, 80 percent of organic operations still fail, the Daily Camera reported last year.
Meanwhile, many local farmers are convinced that GMO crops have tremendous benefits, and not just for the bottom line. Paul Schlagel, who grows GMO sugar beets in the county, told me their introduction was “the best thing that has happened in sugar beet history” — and he should know, since by his estimation his family has planted about 100 sugar beet crops over the years. GMO beets boost yields while vastly reducing the use of pesticides. And since farmers don’t need to till the soil nearly as often, their activities release far less carbon into the atmosphere and require dramatically less water and fossil fuels.
Paul’s brother John, who grows GMO corn on 300 acres of county land, tells much the same story. “As you drive around,” he asked me last month when I visited, “have you seen any dust on the road? No. Twenty years ago the roads would have had dirt piled on them because every field would be plowed and … you’d have zero cover on those fields. Now with no till, minimum till or strip till [made possible by GMO crops], all of the residue is still on top of the ground. So it holds the soil in place.”
“This farm,” he says, “after 46 years is more productive than the day I moved on here. And the organic matter is higher.”
For sugar beet growers, the county’s GMO ban is especially devastating since they cannot simply revert to conventional seed. There are no conventional sugar beets in North America, according to Rebecca Larson, chief scientist of the Western Sugar Cooperative.
That was no secret to the commissioners, of course. They were unmoved and remain dedicated to their course. But they still have an opportunity to approve a research project that will amount to more than a rubber stamp for their convictions.