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|August 6-12, 2009
Planting a seed
County’s debate on GMOs infiltrated
by biotech industry
by Pamela White
On Aug. 25, Boulder County Commissioners will be asked to decide whether six farmers leasing county agricultural land can grow genetically modified (GM) sugar beets. At the meeting, they’ll listen to heartfelt testimony from local farmers who say they need to switch from growing conventional sugar beets to GM sugar beets in order to remain competitive and to continue the farming tradition that’s been in their families for generations. They’ll also hear from environmentalists, organic-food advocates and citizens who worry that genetically modified crops might create long-term environmental, health and social problems that we can’t yet imagine.
But chances are they’ll hear from the food biotechnology industry itself — and they might not realize it.
That’s what happened at the July 23 meeting of the Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee (POSAC), when the public hearing began with testimony from a paid food-industry advocate. Boulder Weekly has learned that Mary Lee Chin, who opened public testimony on GM sugar beets at that hearing, was paid by the Colorado Farm Bureau to attend and speak at the meeting.
Though Boulder County’s management of its agricultural land is a local issue, the passionate debate marks the latest chapter in what is a growing conflict nationwide between consumers who oppose “Franken-foods” on the one hand, and big agribusiness and the food-biotech industry on the other.
So far, commissioners have two recommendations to help them decide which way to go on GM sugar beets. The POSAC members voted 7 to 1 to recommend that the county commissioners approve Roundup Ready sugar beets for planting on county land, while the Food and Agriculture Policy Council voted 10-3 to recommend against the beets. With passions running high on both sides, only one thing is certain: no matter what the county commissioners decide, a lot of people are going to leave the hearing unhappy.
In 1859, a Swedish immigrant named Peter Magnes became the first farmer to plant sugar beets in Colorado. By the 1870s, it became clear to Front Range farmers that, with the help of irrigation, sugar beets might be a dependable crop, one that wouldn’t be pounded into the ground by hail storms and which had a reliable market with ranchers, who used sugar beets to feed cattle and sheep.
The market for sugar beets improved along with the growing demand for sugar, at that time still a luxury. By 1899, Colorado had its first beet sugar manufacturing plant, located in Grand Junction, and sugar derived from sugar beets was well on its way to becoming the state’s “white gold.” Within a decade, Colorado would become the nation’s largest producer of beet sugar, the industry creating jobs that brought people westward and fueling all aspects of the state’s growth — schools, streets, railroads, even towns.
Longmont became the locus of beet sugar production in Boulder County, its factory abandoned but still standing today.
According to Tina Nielsen, special projects coordinator for Boulder County Parks and Open Space, the sugar beet industry brought $387 million into the state’s economy between 1901 and 1930, more than twice the revenue generated by gold and silver mining at its peak.
The same conditions that made sugar beets a popular crop among farmers a century ago are still in place today. Sugar beets grow well in this climate and soil. Because the part of the sugar beet plant that is harvested grows underground, a farmer can’t lose his entire crop to a hailstorm. And although Colorado is no longer the nation’s top sugar beet producer, there’s still a reliable market for
But farming in 2009 isn’t what it was in 1909. The number of small farms has decreased, and the market they serve has shifted from a largely local or state market to a global market. Technology has changed, as well, with the advent of chemicals designed both to cut the labor required to grow crops and to increase farmers’ yields.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farms decreased dramatically after its peak of nearly 7 million in 1935 to about 1.9 million farms by 1997. Because the amount of farmland did not shrink as much as the number of farms, the remaining farms have a larger average acreage. And although the U.S. government classifies about 92 percent of all U.S. farms as small farms, larger agribusiness farms account for about 68 percent of food production.
With industrial farming comes the industrial-level use of herbicides and pesticides and, more recently, GM seeds, tweaked by scientists to be resistant to diseases, pests and herbicides. For farmers, the hope is increased yields, less intensive labor and higher profits. Understandably, most farmers have embraced GM technology whole-heartedly.
Consumers have been somewhat less enthusiastic. Many fear the unintended consequences of artificially changing a plant’s genetic structure, possibly ranging from an increase in food allergies due to changes in the proteins in GM foods to the creation of plants that are toxic to bees and butterflies to the potential evolution of “super weeds,” weeds that become resistant to existing herbicides. They believe there hasn’t been enough independent, verifiable scientific research to prove beyond a doubt that individual GM plants are safe for human consumption or for the environment.
Amid calls for special labeling for products that contain ingredients derived from GM plants, consumers have been behind the growth of the organic food industry. During the same period that the biotech industry was promising everything from tomatoes that fight cancer to bananas and potatoes that can vaccinate people against sexually transmitted diseases, U.S. sales in organic food and beverages grew from $1 billion to an estimated $20 billion in 2007. Representing approximately 2.8 percent of overall food and beverage sales in 2006, the organic food sector grew 20.9 percent in 2006.
According to the Organic Trade Association, a marketing resource group for the organic food industry, organic food sales are anticipated to increase an average of 18 percent per year through 2010.
And so the United States has come to a philosophical parting of the ways over food production, with some rejecting the corporate model and advocating a return to smaller farms, the use of fewer or no artificial chemicals and a locally based food economy and others supporting biotechnology as a way to make farming easier and more profitable on a global scale.
Tools in the toolbox
In 2003, in the midst of a much smaller public outcry, a different group of Boulder County commissioners approved the cultivation of three types of GM corn — Bt resistant corn, which is poisonous to insect pests, and LibertyLink corn and Roundup Ready corn, both of which are resistant to specific herbicides. The commissioners also set in place a policy that requires any future GM crops to be individually approved before they can be grown on county land.
Last year, Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds became available to farmers, almost instantly capturing about 95 percent of the market.
Some Colorado farmers said the GM seeds enabled them to produce record yields due to better, more precise weed control.
Roundup Ready sugar beets enabled them to kill weeds using the herbicide Roundup, which contains glyphosate, without killing sugar beet plants.
Roundup is produced by multinational biotech giant Monsanto, as is the H7-1 trait incorporated by another global biotech company, Syngenta, into sugar beet seeds to make them Roundup resistant.
This past December, six farmers came forward and, following county procedure, petitioned to be allowed to grow Roundup Ready sugar beets on the agricultural land they lease from the county — about 960 acres, according to Nielsen.
The farmers say they need to grow GM sugar beets in order to compete with other farmers and that there are no other crops they can grow on county land that offer the financial stability of sugar beets. They also say that growing Roundup Ready sugar beets will enable them to reap a profitable harvest using fewer chemicals and that the biennial nature of sugar beets — the vast majority of sugar beet plants flower only in their second year — prevent pollen from drifting and contaminating organic sugar beet crops with altered genetics, because the plants are harvested in their first year. Further, because their contract with Monsanto would require them to monitor their fields and eliminate any plants that flower early — Monsanto does not allow farmers to grow and keep a store of GM seeds — there’s very little risk of such contamination. They also point to the fact that Roundup becomes inert upon contact with the soil as evidence that it’s one of the safest herbicides in use today.
Those who oppose the farmers’ petition say that the science on GM technology is so new that no long-term studies have been done about the technology’s impact on human health or the environment. They say the studies that do exist are inconclusive and too heavily influenced by the biotech industry for people to know for certain that products with GM ingredients are safe. They cite studies showing that the presence of Roundup Ready crops have a devastating impact on pollinators because native flowering weeds are killed off, leaving bees, moths and butterflies without a source of nectar. They also express concern about the impact of Roundup on weeds, which have been shown to develop resistance to the herbicide, and on frogs and other wetland organisms.
The farmers’ request and the strong opposition to it put the county into investigative mode. The issues Nielsen says the county has explored include the impact of Roundup Ready technology on the environment and on human health; the economic situation and market realities facing local farmers; a comparison of conventional sugar beet cultivation with the cultivation of Roundup Ready sugar beets; and other crops that farmers might grow to meet their needs besides Roundup Ready sugar beets.
“It’s been a real education for a lot of us — our board members, some of us on staff, and for a lot of members of the public,” Nielsen says.
One thing that came as a shock to Nielsen and others was the chemical-heavy nature of conventional farming. At the May study session, one of the farmers brought in the chemicals he uses to grow sugar beets under conventional practices.
“The people in the audience were stunned, and the people on the committees were, too,” Nielsen says. “To see them all lined up like that — the green one, the orange one, the pink one, the yellow one, the blue one — it was extremely impactful.”
Ultimately, county staff recommended to the Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee in favor of approving the farmers’ petition with a handful of conditions tacked on to address what they felt were legitimate concerns.
To prevent the growth of Roundup-resistant weeds, staff would like a requirement allowing farmers to grow Roundup Ready sugar beets only two out of every four years on any given parcel of land. Nielsen says that places where weeds have become resistant to Roundup are places where weeds are continually exposed to the herbicide. They would also like to require the farmers to notify them by Feb. 15 each year so that they can notify organic farmers that GM sugar beets will be grown nearby. They would also require a 50-foot buffer zone between plants to be sprayed with Roundup and surface water (not including irrigation ditches). And they would require farmers to check for beets that flower early and remove those plants, something that duplicates a requirement in the farmers’ contracts with Monsanto.
At the July 23 POSAC meeting, Nielsen outlined the work the county had done on the issue, sharing factors that helped inform staff members’ decision on the matter, a major one being the desire to ensure that farmers have “all the tools in the toolbox” they need to help them thrive.
“Roundup Ready technology also fits in that tool box,” she said.
Nielsen told members of the advisory committee that county staff recommended the farmers’ petition be approved, an announcement that was met with heavy silence from a crowd that overwhelmingly opposes the cultivation of GMOs on county land. But some in the audience were pleased with the decision county staff made, and they weren’t only farmers. Among those who were gratified by the outcome was Mary Lee Chin.
Behind the veil
Chin was the first to speak during the public testimony period of the July 23 hearing. Here is a portion of her testimony as taken from a recording of the hearing made available by Boulder County:
“I am a registered dietician with a master’s degree in clinical nutrition. I’ve been a registered dietician for over 35 years. The focus of my practice over those three decades has been to council my patients and the public about nutrition and nutrient-rich foods that will help them achieve optimum health.
“For this reason, I strongly support and advocate food biotechnology as an agricultural method that produces better, more nutritious food, higher yield at an affordable price with less land and using methods that will help sustain the environment.”
Chin went on to describe her patients, many of whom are young, overweight and undernourished, saying that she looks to “food biotechnology to produce the nutrients and micro-nutrients that our population needs.”
She also quoted President Barack Obama’s statement about returning science to its rightful place and said that she looks to science-based information about food to help her make decisions.
What Chin didn’t say was that she was paid to testify at the hearing by the Colorado Farm Bureau, an organization that advocates for farmers and ranchers in the state. Nor did she disclose that, in addition to working as a clinical dietician, she owns a business, Nutrition Edge Communications, through which she earns a living advocating on behalf of food products and coaching food industry professionals on dealing with the public and the media.
According to Chin’s resume, she left clinical nutrition work in 1988 and since then has worked in various capacities as a spokesperson until starting her own consulting business. The clients she lists on her website include: California Raisin Marketing Board, Folger’s Coffee, Campbell Soup Company, Avocado Commission, National Pork Board, National Dairy Council, Kraft Foods, American Egg and Nutrition Board, Enova Oil, Ajinomoto Aspartame, and the International Food Information Council.
The International Food Information Council (IFIC), in turn, is an advocacy organization focused on supporting the food-biotech industry. IFIC’s website includes no information about its funders, but PoliticalFriendster.com names a host of biotech and chemical corporations that were listed as supporters in 2002, including Monsanto, Syngenta, Procter & Gamble, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Kraft and others.
Chin’s message in support of food biotechnology is available in video format on the IFIC’s YouTube page, as well as at Monsanto.com.
Boulder Weekly contacted Chin, who was vacationing at a resort on Cape Cod, to confirm her affiliations and get her response.
Chin confirmed that she had come to the hearing as a paid advocate for the Colorado Farm Bureau.
When asked why she didn’t disclose that fact, she said, “It didn’t occur to me to do that. I did say I’m a strong advocate of biotechnology.”
Chin said she’s been in nutrition consulting for about 20 years and that she works for the food industry, as well as for nonprofits.
Boulder Weekly asked Chin how she could talk about people needing good nutrition on one hand and advocate for a company like Kraft, famous makers of Velveeta, on the other.
“My philosophy is that we need to practice moderation and good food choices,” she said. “I’ve never advocated Velveeta. When I work for a food industry, they usually have a product with some health and nutritional benefits. I work on that initiative rather than for the whole product line.”
Chin went on to explain that she supports all agricultural methods.
“I have to go on the record that I am a proponent of all foods that are produced — organic, conventional and GMO,” she said. “I have really studied all aspects of the agriculture. I’ve taken a look at GMO. Most of my work is done through IFIC — International Food Information Council. I’ve also taken a hard look at the organic production of food. I’ve owned a share and worked a share in an organic cooperative garden for a number of years… I can’t go out and say I support this or support that without giving some really good assessment to it. I’ve also talked with a lot of farmers who’ve done conventional farming, organic farming and GMO farming.
And what I find is that they’re truly sincere people who care about their land. Like farmers in Boulder, they’ve spent generations on their land, and they’re trying to find the best production methods to produce food for their community.”
She says what she finds to be truly positive about GMOs is that they provide options.
“So while the people who spoke out against genetically modified foods in Boulder have the option to support organic, I believe that there are other options that need to be available to provide food to feed the world,” Chin said. “I find that genetically modified foods is one very viable option.”
She said that, as with any new technology, there are risks and benefits that must be weighed, but that she believes GMOs are “very, very well regulated.”
“I heard the recommendations that the staff made about GMO foods in Boulder, and they’re putting in a huge amount of safety regulations around it, probably more than what’s needed,” she said. “But if that’s what will help people accept it, then I’m all for it. They include things like the buffer barrier, the rotation of crops, and when you take a look at GMO foods, they have been very much scrutinized, much more so than conventionally produced foods or organic foods.”
Lisa Drake, a representative from Monsanto who attended both public hearings about GM sugar beets but did not speak, said Chin did not come to the meeting on behalf of Monsanto. Drake says she attended the meetings to make certain that county staff had the answers they needed with regard to the science behind Monsanto’s products.
As for Chin’s presence, Drake said, “I think her being there is good. She brings a different point of view.”
Drake said she couldn’t recall whether Chin disclosed her business relationship before she testified, then said that representatives of the organic industry likewise spoke without disclosing their business affiliations or acknowledging that they have a big financial stake in the outcome of the commissioners’ decisions.
But Steve Demos, founder of Silk Soy and WhiteWave and Next Foods, says that’s not true. He points out that he and other business leaders from the organic industry are all local residents and that they did announce who they were when they spoke.
“I’m sorry, but I’ve got to be fairly harsh here. I think a fraud is being perpetrated upon us,” he said. “I think it’s a thinly veiled disguise when somebody shows up from the farm bureau who is paid specifically by one side or another and doesn’t announce that because that’s just truth in who you are and what you represent.”
The bigger picture
So why would the Colorado Farm Bureau send a paid advocate to a meeting over 960 acres of land? Why is the biotech industry so interested in the outcome of the Boulder County Commissioner’s decision? It’s not about those acres; it’s about the precedent.
Demos says that Boulder County is the “epicenter” for organic and natural. If Monsanto were to gain support for its GM products on county land here, it would be a big win for them.
“We believe we are an epicenter of thought leadership,” he says. “And that thought leadership embraces natural foods and organic foods, and we really don’t want to be the poster child for Monsanto, saying, ‘See, everybody’s doing this — even the organic community, even Boulder.’”
But it likely goes beyond even Boulder County’s image to something even more basic. As the organic industry continues to grow, opposition is mounting against genetically tweaked food, pesticides and herbicides. And although Monsanto reported $2.024 billion in profits last year, no one wants to be on the wrong side of a social shift.
That’s likely why, in 2004, Monsanto and other biotech companies tried to stop Mendocino County in California from banning GMOs. In March 2004, voters in Mendocino County passed Measure H, which banned GM crops and animals from the county. The grassroots campaign for Measure H successfully staved off efforts by CropLife America, a consortium of biotech companies, including Monsanto and Syngenta, to quash the issue and even change the wording on the ballot.
“Our victory in Mendocino County is simply a catalyst for counties all over the nation to protect their agriculture, food system and local economy,” said Doug Mosel, campaign leader for Measure H.
That may be what’s most unsettling for Monstano and for corporate agribusiness.
Demos says that he wants a ballot measure on the fall ballot that would do something similar, banning GMO crops from county-owned land.
The arguments of those who oppose GMOs are perhaps best summed up by CSU Professor Emeritus Robert Zimdahl, who spoke at the Food and Agriculture Policy Council meeting. Though he did not advocate a position at the meeting, his words resonated with many in the crowd.
“The question you face is a moral question,” he said. “It’s not, ‘What is possible?’ It’s, ‘What ought we to do?’”
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