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Thursday, June 16,2011

Yes or no to GMOs?

Boulder County on the brink of decision

By Elizabeth Miller

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) drew a fierce response in 2009, when a group of sugar beet farmers wanted permission to grow genetically modified crops on Boulder County land. That proposal was withdrawn after a strong public reaction, but the question of whether the county would permit or ban these groups was never fully resolved. In early 2011, the Cropland Policy Advisory Group convened to address the issues of agriculture in Boulder County, with a goal of making the county a leader in sustainable farming. In bi-monthly conversations, they’re working their way through tough subjects like water policy, soil health and agricultural markets. Up next on the group’s agenda is the issue of agricultural inputs: pesticides, fertility treatments, and genetically modified crops.

The problem with GMOs, to some, has been that so much is unknown. Michael Brownlee was a member of the Boulder County Food and Agriculture Policy Council when the issue of genetically modified sugar beets first appeared and says that after reading the literature and discussing the issue with people, he decided to decline the sugar beet farmers’ request and went so far as to suggest banning genetically modified crops in all of Boulder.

“The science that’s available is fairly inconclusive. Most of the science that’s pro-GMO was paid for by the big agricultural industry, the biotech industry, so those studies are suspect,” Brownlee says. “There have been very few independent studies that have been done, but many of those that have been done have raised questions about the safety and long term viability of using GMOs in crops.”

The economic arguments in favor of GMO crops factor in government subsidies, which offer little assistance for alternatives, like organic farming, he says. Because the decision to use genetically modified crops could endanger the health of people, the soil and the long-term sustainability of agriculture, Brownlee says, he’s chosen to lean toward cautiousness about GMOs. Recently released reports suggest that there could be health impacts on humans who consume genetically modified crops or animals that were fed genetically modified crops.

“I would just say that it’s a very complex issue, and we, as citizens, need to take responsibility to become very informed about this issue because it will have a huge long term impact on our health, the health of our children and on the health of the planet as well,” Brownlee says.

He co-founded Transition Colorado, which promotes local food movements, and has planned a one-day event on GMOs during this year’s Eat Local Week, Aug. 27 to Sept. 4. It will include a debate between anti- and pro-GMO scientists.

“Our goal is not to take a public stand one way or another, but to create a forum where the issues can be publicly discussed,” Brownlee says. “We think there’s a need for just an open, old-fashioned debate about the issue, to allow the public to ask questions and respond to the issue.”

“There are folks who have very strong feelings about genetically engineered crops and we respect that. We want there to be a discussion about genetically engineered crops,” says Jesse Rounds, resource manager for Boulder County Parks and Open Space.

He is overseeing the Cropland Policy Advisory Group, which is drafting suggested policies for the Boulder County commissioners that will guide them in supporting sustainable agriculture. Boulder County Parks and Open Spaces manages 25,000 acres of agricultural land, 18,000 of which is worked as cropland or irrigated pastureland. Farmers who have leased and are working that land receive input from Parks and Open Spaces officials on being good stewards of that land. The advisory group has nine members, most of whom are working farmers or ranchers, both organic and conventional.

“Really our goal is to have a sustainable agricultural system in Boulder County, and our goal statement for the whole system is to be leaders in the sustainable farming,” Rounds says.

Public attendance at the meetings is welcomed, but the meetings aren’t intended to be a public forum.

“It’s really the nine people who are in the group talking and having an open discussion, and while we invite the public to come and listen, we ask that they don’t get involved in the discussion,” Rounds says. “This group of residents, these nine people, are not making policy, they’re advising us, and we want them to have the space to really explore and discuss without the pressures of opinions from the outside.”

Discussions at the advisory group will turn to focus on agricultural inputs, including genetically modified crops, in a series of meetings beginning June 15.

“We’re expecting it to be a hot-button issue. We’re expecting it to come up at any forum we have, and we want to talk about it,” Rounds says. The issue will be revisited July 6 and July 20.

A draft of the policies will be available at a Parks and Open Spaces open house on Oct. 19, and the county’s policy on GMOs is expected to be part of that presentation.

“I don’t even want to begin to wonder what it will be because we haven’t begun to hear from [the advisory group],” Rounds says. “We’ll hear from them, and then we’ll come out with what we, in our professional opinion, feel is the best thing for Boulder County.”
Drafted policies will be reviewed by several committees and will be open to public comment as the county considers them.

“We know there are a lot of sort of sensitive issues surrounding agriculture,” Rounds says. “We knew that this was going to be a bigger issue, so we decided to slow the process down and really dig into the questions that are out there.”
Parks and Open Spaces has run a series of forums to discuss local farming and sustainable agriculture, and offered public tours of farms on county land.

“It was really helpful for the public to hear how the farmers work on their land and how we work with the farmers,” Rounds says.
Farm tours will be available again this year on June 21 and Aug. 9. Farms will also be open to visits during the harvest, around October.

Policy advisory group meetings run from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. the first and third Wednesdays every month through September at the Parks and Open Spaces headquarters in Longmont.
For more information on Transition Colorado, visit transitioncolorado.ning.com.

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