Only two of the nine members of a county cropland advisory group believe genetically modified foods should not be grown on local open space lands.
straw poll of the members of the county’s Cropland Policy Advisory Group (CPAG)
on Aug. 17 revealed that only organic farmers Ewell Culbertson and Richard
Andrews favor a complete ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on
county-owned open space.
“The day is going to come when this technology is going to be exposed as a failure,” Culbertson said, adding that those who develop and use GMOs will be seen as “a bunch of children playing with matches.”
Toward the end of the meeting, two other CPAG members — Emily Prisco and Jeannette Hillery — showed interest in gradually reducing the use of GMOs on open space, but stopped short of endorsing an outright ban.
CPAG isn’t expected to issue its recommendations until November, and the county commissioners likely won’t decide on the matter until early 2012.
On Wednesday night in Longmont, the majority of the advisory group expressed support for alternatives that allow for “co-existence” among organic, conventional and GMO farmers. They endorsed creating a county approval process to regulate the use of genetically modified crops on a case-by-case basis. That approval process is still under discussion, but options include basing it on whether “the weight of scientific evidence proves these crops to be unsafe for the community or environment,” or on a “genetically engineered crop rubric.”
Culbertson and Andrews, the organic farmers, agreed that requiring all crops on county land to be grown organically, in accordance with the National Organic Program, would be too extreme. But they questioned their colleagues’ faith in the concept of “co-existence.”
“Organic farmers are threatened by [farmers who use chemicals], but not the other way around,” Andrews told the group, referring to the possible “drift” of toxins and GMOs. “That argument just falls flat for me.”
But other panel members disagreed, saying that it goes both ways, and that conventional/GMO farms could be contaminated by adjacent organic farms as well.
The advisory group, which was appointed by the county commissioners after a 2009 outcry about a proposal to grow genetically modified sugar beets on open space, has been meeting since February, but only took up the GMO issue last week. The group heard from one critic of GMOs and two pro-GMO experts at its Aug. 10 meeting, and complaints about that imbalance prompted county staff to bring in a fourth speaker, Dr. Charles Benbrook of The Organic Center, to this week’s meeting.
When asked about the viability of “co-existence,” Benbrook told the group that all can agree on the concept of “do no harm” to your neighbor, but accidents happen.
“The crux is, what happens when despite our best efforts, an adverse impact does happen?” he asked. “What happens then? Who pays?”
Benbrook added that the situation can and should be addressed quickly.
“I don’t think this is an unmanageable process by any means,” he said, “but if we put our heads in the sand, it will get worse.”
CPAG member Daniel Lisco asked county officials whether they have seen any conflicts or problems related to the 2003 approval of GMO corn on county land, and David Bell, agricultural division manager for open space, replied, “No.”
Culbertson agreed with the “it’s a free country” argument raised by conventional/GMO farmers, saying people can do what they want on their private property. But this discussion, he said, is about the county’s public land, which is owned by the taxpayers, and he suggested putting the matter to a vote of the county’s residents.
Jules Van Thuyne said he could see having protocols for rotating glyphosate, the primary ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, but he said it would be wrong to ban or even reduce the use of GMOs because new technologies are constantly being developed, and it would be “taking a step backwards.”
Dea Sloan agreed, saying that new technologies could prove to be beneficial to humans, and banning GMOs would lock the county in to a particular outcome.
Prior to the CPAG members’ discussion, Benbrook told the group that despite reports of organic farming being outdated and quaint, large-scale organic farming is possible, citing a successful 4,000-acre organic operation in central Washington state.
He also said that whatever decision the county commissioners make on the cropland policy will be a “bellwether” for the rest of the country, since Boulder is the “epicenter of the organic food business in the United States.”
Benbrook also said that if the problems in the Southeast — where weeds have widely become resistant to Roundup and have prompted farmers to return to more dangerous herbicides — spreads to the Midwest, it will threaten the country’s food supply. He said the alarm has been sounded that Midwest farmers only have a few more years to alter their practices of overusing Roundup and GMOs.
“If they keep doing what they’re doing, they’re going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Benbrook said. “If what happens in the Southeast happens in the Midwest, that’s the backbone of our crop supply. And there’s no back-up plan.”
He said that even if Boulder County banned the use of Roundup on open space, it’s hard for farmers to find non-GMO seeds for corn and soybeans nowadays, because about 90 percent are genetically modified.
“It’s kind of a sweet deal for the seed companies, but not such a sweet deal for the farmers and the environment,” Benbrook said.
He added, however, that Roundup is actually a fairly benign chemical and “is not nearly as toxic as some of the herbicides it replaces.”
If farmers have to return to toxic chemicals like 2,4-D to kill Roundup-resistant weeds, Benbrook explained, the drift from such toxins could kill crops on nearby fields. The problem is, science hasn’t advanced enough to consistently track when such drift is to blame for crop deaths.
“It’s kind of like a crime was committed, but there’s no way to determine what happened,” he said.
Benbrook also tipped his hat on which way he leans on the GMO question facing the group.
“I think Boulder County should not allow herbicide-resistant plants to be planted on public land,” he said.