A kernel of progress emerges from the local GMO debate

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Dried beans are not the sexiest food to be found at the farmers market. (It’s chard, actually.) But the humble bean is at the center of Boulder County’s ongoing debate over genetically modified (GM) crops grown on County open space, a practice scheduled to be completely phased out within the next four years.

As part of that phase-out program, which was, contentiously, extended in 2019, farmers are receiving financial and market assistance from the County to sell non-GM crops, and dried beans are the first major offering from that work. The program has the potential to provide a blueprint for other communities transitioning away from GM crops, as well as to provide the necessary support for farmers to try new, sustainable crops without the financial risk associated with doing so. 

And so the question for a community that overwhelmingly spoke out against GM crops is: Is this aspect of the program a silver lining, or is it too little, too late?

Let’s go back. In 2011, the Board of County Commissioners voted to allow the growth of GM crops on County-owned (and –leased) farmland. In 2016, with two of the three Commissioners who voted to approve GM use replaced, the Commissioners voted to phase out the use of GM crops — corn by 2019 and sugar beets by 2021.

“I truly believe that transitioning away from GMO sugar beets and corn is a move in the right direction, but I feel we need to do so in a way that works in close partnership with our farmers and helps remove barriers that might stand in their way to successfully farming on open space lands,” County Commissioner Deb Gardner said at the time.

Then, in 2019, the Commissioners met to decide whether to extend the phase-out — farmers were reluctant to try new crops and lamented the pressure to transition away from GM crops, the County claimed. Despite pressure from the community, the Commissioners decided to extend the phase-out — GM corn to 2021 and GM sugar beets to 2025 — and hire local agriculture group, Mad Agriculture, to help farmers plan a successful transition.

That brings us to today. Part of the County and Mad Ag’s transition plan calls for field trials of non-GM crops, and it sets aside part of the $823,000 transition budget toward subsidizing some of the risk for former GM farmers to try new crops.

The funds, which get progressively greater over the three years of the trial, can be used to purchase seed, freight and other expenses one might not expect, says Cassandra Schnarr, agricultural resource specialist at Boulder County Parks and Open Space.

“Think of it like this: Say I’m a farmer and I’m used to growing 100 acres of one crop. It’s one crop that gets into my planter or drill, and I can just keep refilling the hopper on that and keep going on that all day. If I’m experimenting with three different varieties [of crop], I’ve got to stop, clean the bins; it takes a lot of extra time and then more to harvest,” she says.

While some of those community members who opposed extending the GM phase-out may bristle at the idea of taxpayers subsidizing this work, there is, concurrently, a silver lining that may encourage farmers on all sizes of land to experiment with new, sustainable crops and practices. 

“The issue with the local food system and getting it to work is we are always putting the risk on the farmer, and the farmer is running a business,” says Brian Coppom, executive director of the Boulder County Farmers Markets (BCFM). “They can’t afford to take all the risk for our social benefit, and so part of the challenge in our food system is how do we start to have public investment that de-risks some of this innovation in agriculture?”

That’s where the field trials aspects of the phase-out plan comes in. Farmers grow non-GM crops on a progressive scale, starting small, with help from the County to lower costs and find markets. Jules Van Thuyne, a farmer, has been growing pinto beans for several years, and as part of the transition program, recently grew 40 acres of the crop, producing close to 100,000 pounds of beans, which are now for sale through BCFM and have also been sold to area institutions that could use a shelf-stable, healthy high-protein food like dried beans. Essentially, “Boulder County de-risked the growing of them,” Coppom says.

“About 20,000 pounds [of Van Thuyne’s beans] were purchased by food pantries in Colorado,” says Tessa Hale, healthy beverage and food advisor at Boulder County Public Health. “We’ve just been working to facilitate getting these beans into institutions, organizations and schools.”

A big selling point of the program is not only that it helps in the transition away from GM crops, while also serving the soil well (beans, for instance, add nitrogen back into the ground, and other non-GM crops reduce the use of harmful chemicals), but being able to provide affordable plant-based protein helps improve the health of the community, particularly for those who are food-insecure, Hale says.

“I was really interested in looking to how we could increase the healthfulness of foods provided to individuals in the county who are food-insecure and getting meals on the free and reduced public health program, or people receiving food from food pantries,” she says.

So far, farmers have tried planting non-GM crops like sorghum, corn and garbanzo beans, in order to see how well they grow (the chickpeas did not do well), how much it cost to grow them, and how much the farmers would have to sell them for to make ends meet.

And last year, the County worked with farmers to run a wheat trial, which is particularly interesting in the context of a greater movement toward reviving heritage and heirloom grains. Part of the trouble of reviving the grain chain, as it’s called, is the fact that the unique infrastructure to harvest and process grain had to be built from scratch — though if you’ve been to Moxie, Dry Storage or had the chance to stop by Black Cat’s mill house, you know people are working diligently to turn healthier, tastier varieties of wheat into flour and baked goods at a relatively affordable price.

For the time being, Hale says the County and its participating farmers are “just kind of working through barriers” like the infrastructure question and, for instance, trying to figure out what the market is for beans, heritage wheat and other foods that might end up in subsequent trials. Hale adds keeping an eye on consumer habits and market trends may play a part in future iterations of the program.

“That’s definitely a huge part of the vision, of having a more local and sustainable food system. Shifting away from commodity crops and getting to more direct-to-consumer kinds of foods,” she says. 

And there’s hope the program, or a similar iteration, may continue in the future, because the County has heard the concerns from community members about the need to transition to an eco-friendly, sustainable form of agriculture on open space, Schnarr says.

“The County, from the Commissioners on down, is very invested in sustainability, and part of sustainability is carbon sequestration,” Schnarr says. “Part of carbon sequestration is soil health, trying out different crop rotations, the order in which you plant the crops, whether you plant the crops and then have a fallow period. … So I think moving in those directions of soil health and sustainability issues, the County’s gung-ho and excited about it. I’m sure there’s going to be funding.”  

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