If you slice open a strawberry, it still looks like a strawberry, whether it’s genetically modified or not. If you slice open the recent decision by the Cropland Policy Advisory Group on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and organic crops in Boulder County, it looks less like a decision and more like a complicated system of checks and approvals still open for revision.
The Cropland Policy Advisory Group decided to permit GMOs in its proposed policy in a 6-3 vote on Sept. 20. GMO opponents argue that it doesn’t extend enough protections to organic farmers, who risk contamination from pesticides and cross-pollination. County officials say the county’s support of organic farms is clear.
“Essentially what it says is there’s a certain amount of controversy ongoing about genetically engineered crops, so Boulder County needs to be careful about how they use the technologies,” says Jesse Rounds, resource planner for Parks and Open Space. “And it lays out a series of checks that say if the technology is compatible with our core principles, if it claims to improve soil quality or reduce impact on soil quality or biodiversity, then that’s good. Then a series of things that if it says it’s going to increase yield or it’s going to improve nutrition, we need to check on those things before we approve it and we would only approve technologies that do what they say.”
Parks and Open Space staff will independently review every GMO crop proposed for Boulder County, according to Rounds, drawing on expertise from Colorado State University, the CSU Extension Office, the USDA, local tenants and interest groups. GMO crops will also be reviewed every five years, under the proposed policy.
The next step for the Cropland Policy Advisory Group’s recommendations is a review on Oct. 5. Parks and Open Space staff will review them and approve or overturn them, though Rounds says they’ve worked closely with the advisory group and are most interested in preserving these recommendations. From there, the Parks and Open Space proposals and comments from the public will go to the county Food and Agriculture Policy Council, which will review them and make a recommendation on whether to submit those proposals to the county commissioners.
Cropland Policy Advisory Group member Dea Sloan wrote the suggested policy, which was considered alongside proposals to ban GMOs or phase them out over a number of years. Banning GMOs outright seemed too limiting, Sloan says, particularly given her research that there isn’t a market for organic corn or wheat crops in Colorado.
“A Boulder County farmer could grow organic wheat, but there isn’t any place to sell it as organic wheat,” Sloan says. There’s a market for organic fruits and vegetables, she says, but not for organic grains or organic sugar beets.
Three organic dairy and farming representatives on the advisory group favored banning GMO crops.
Richard Andrews, who runs the Andrews Family Farm and farms organically, was among that minority.
“The reason that I generally will oppose genetically modified organisms is, for one, I don’t think the science has been thoroughly enough investigated,” he says. “There’s a whole lot of new information coming out in fairly rapid fire, just in the last couple years, and the information that is showing concerns about negative side effects of the crops themselves in the food chain, the effects on the animals or the people that eat these products made with these crops — that’s part of the avenue of concern, and the other part is the pesticides used.”
Using GMO crops may save farmers time and money, but the risks include glyphosate, the herbicide known as Roundup, Touchdown, or Rodeo, which has been found to contaminate water sources, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and to eventually produce strains of weeds resistant to glyphosate. Watching those resistant weeds is high on the Agriculture Policy Council’s list of concerns, according to Rounds. There’s only one crop planted in Boulder County that’s resistant to Roundup, he says, and it’s only applied every few years.
But among the tertiary effects of GMO use is the damage to Boulder County’s brand, argues Mary VonBreck, campaign manager for GMO Free Boulder.
“The epicenter of organic growth is right here in Boulder. You have a huge constituency of people who live here for that brand,” VonBreck says. “Everyone’s livelihood is linked to that brand.”
Boulder is home to food processing companies, including Celestial Seasonings, Silk and Alfalfa’s.
“I think that the brand is more important locally than it is outside of the area, and I think that locally consumers are going to buy natural and organic because they want to support natural and organic brands and local brands,” Sloan says. “I think outside of our region people aren’t going to buy a product just because it comes from Boulder.”
The proposal also recommends some “good neighbor” practices, but that’s a one-way street, GMO opponents say. The proposal did not move forward with a GMO buffer zone to protect organic crops from contamination from pesticides and cross pollination.
“There is no protection for the organic farmers, meaning there is no protection for organic foods,” VonBreck says.
But because the only GMO crop in Boulder County now is corn, that’s the only crop that could possibly be cross-pollinated, Sloan says.
After the GMO decision, the following night the Cropland Policy Advisory Group turned its attention to organic farming in general and agreed to transition more of the county’s open space toward organic farming. Their goal was to meet or exceed the national growth rate for organic farming, which was 12 percent in 2008, the latest numbers available from the USDA, Sloan says.
As those lands are converted to organic standards, they will no longer be available for GMO crops.
“I think in [the advisory group’s] policies you see that they recognize the value of organic farming. Unfortunately I think everyone is focused a little too much on this one part of a larger document and the larger document encourages organic production,” Rounds says.
“We have a policy proposal that says we will give preference to people proposing to grow organically on our property. We give land rent breaks to organic farmers. One of the things we spend quite a bit of our agricultural funds on is preparing ground for organic farmers. We do quite a bit, and I think the advisory group encouraged us to keep doing that plus more.”
But VonBreck says these policies don’t have enough teeth. The Food and Agriculture Policy Council was mandated to have 10 percent of open space farms being grown organically by 2012. That would be roughly 2,000 acres. The county currently has 580 acres leased for organic farms, or about 2.8 percent.
“If they want to have an organic policy and increase organics, a GMO policy doesn’t fit. They’re going to have to get rid of GMOs. Period,” VonBreck says. “If I were going to believe they were moving toward that, I would have to see a policy that said no GMOs.”
Rounds says he doesn’t expect to see a huge number of genetically engineered crop proposals.
“There are a number of genetically engineered crops on the market already. Only a few of them really have a market here in Boulder, and then amongst those, only a few of them could grow here in Boulder County, and beyond that only a few of them would be proposed to grow here,” Rounds says. “It’s not going to be a deluge of proposals.”
But Andrews says he thinks the problem is larger than that.
“I think the flood gates are just, they’re open,” Andrews says. “Right now, we’ve only been dealing with in this county a couple of crops, and across the nation that’s been the case, but I think we’re going to see an onslaught of even more and more types of crops that are going to be, the seed source are going to be GMOs.”
The Cropland Policy Advisory Group’s recommendations will be presented and opened to public comment at an open house on Nov. 7.