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Boulder County Board Votes To Ban GMO Crops On Public Land

Luke Runyon
KUNC/Harvest Public Media
A barn sits near Boulder County's Parks and Open Space Department.

Crops genetically-engineered to withstand certain pesticides have a short shelf-life in Boulder County, Colorado.

The county’s commissioners voted Wednesday to ban growing genetically engineered crops on county open space. The decision does not apply to privately-owned farmland.

The vote puts in place a transition plan to remove GMO corn and sugar beets -- the only GMO crops grown locally on open space land -- from public land within the next 5 years. 

In 2015, farmers planted GMO corn and sugar beets on about 1,200 acres of the county’s leased open space, accounting for about 8 percent of all leased cropland in Boulder County. Starting in 2017, tenant farmers will have five years to remove GMO sugar beets from their crop rotations, and three years to eliminate GMO corn. That means 2021 would be the last year any GMO crop is grown on county-owned land.

With vast swathes of publicly-owned farmland, the fast-growing Front Range county is unique. The county bought acres of land over decades with taxpayer funds. That means discussions about how to use it, and what’s best for county residents and farmers, are often heated.

For years, the issue has created deep divisions among the county’s mix of conventional farmers, organic growers, natural food companies, scientists, city dwellers and rural residents.

During the nearly four-hour meeting to decide the fate of the proposed GMO cultivation ban, county residents both praised and derided the commissioners who pushed for its implementation. Sitting commissioners Elise Jones and Deb Gardner both campaigned on a promise to remove GMO crops from county open space.

The now approved plan acts a deadline, Jones said, and gives farmers a period of time to remove the crops from their annual rotations. She acknowledged the public process to draft the plan could have been more transparent.

“People may not feel like they’ve been heard,” Jones said at the county commission meeting. “But half the room wants this transition to happen tomorrow. Half the room says never.”

Jones also left open the door for a future ban on neonicotinoid seed coatings, often blamed by critics for harming bee populations.

Commissioner Cindy Domenico, who grew up on a Boulder County farm, voted against the plan. Domenico said some county residents plant a backyard garden and think they understand how a large-scale crop farm works.

“Sometimes urban, utopian ideas don’t necessarily mesh with rural realities,” Domenico said.

Famuer Rasmussen is one of 13 farmers who currently grow GMO crops on county land. He told the panel the ban could put him out of business.

“I’m not getting rich,” Rasmussen told the commissioners. “But right now, I get by and take care of the land. If my ability to plant my own crops, including a sustainable growing of local sugar beets, is taken away, I may be done as a farmer.”

"You have consistently shown us that you don’t care at all what we have to say," Rasmussen said.

Some local residents at the county commission meeting saw the GMO ban as a land-use issue. Boulder County has been buying farmland since the 1970s as a way to preserve the county’s rural spaces and push back on suburban sprawl. That’s left the county to manage and lease more than 100,000 acres of land for recreation, farming and ranching.

“I have no right to say what they do on their private land,” said Longmont resident Steven Hoffman, who manages a natural food marketing company. “But as soon as it’s on public land and there are these kinds of hearings, I am allowed a voice.”

Commissioners and staff for county parks and open space acknowledged the adopted plan is vague and will require additional meetings to figure out the details of the transition away from GMO crops. That will likely mean one-on-one meetings with the affected farmers and county staff.

“Each producer is different,” Parks and Open Space Department director Eric Lane said. “We’ll have to figure out with them what works.”

GMO bans enacted in other parts of the country have a mixed track record of success. Earlier this year a judge in Hawaii ruled that three counties overreached when trying to regulate GMOs and pesticide use. Meanwhile in Oregon, a judge struck down a ban in Josephine County, while a settlement in Jackson County allowed a ban there to remain in place. Voters this election in Sonoma County, California enacted a GMO ban. Bans exist in at least five other California counties. Boulder County’s ban is unique in that it just targets public land use.

The Boulder County ban on using public land for the cultivation of GMO crops also calls for the creation of an agricultural research station, and researchers at both the Pennsylvania-based organic advocacy group Rodale Institute and at Colorado State University have expressed interest in partnering with the county to run the station.

Since the mid-’90s, GMO crops have grown to near ubiquity across the country, with GMO varieties of corn, cotton, sugar beets, soybeans, alfalfa and other crops planted on more than 175 million acres of U.S. farmland in 2015. No reputable scientific studies have found negative impacts from the crops on human health.

The issue has split the Boulder County farming community, with full-throated calls for the ban from some and cries of its unscientific basis from others. Jason Condon, who primarily grows organic produce in Lafayette, Colorado, said the ban was created with good intentions.

“But I believe in practice it will lead to more rancor and more disputed data due to questionable motives, and will do no good,” Condon said.

“Like it or not, the success of this venture depends on farmers. It can only succeed if farmers make it succeed. It’s time to start really listening to our farmers and what they need.”

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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