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Thursday, December 8,2011

Bad seed

The hidden costs of allowing genetically modified crops on county open space

By Joel Dyer

It´s never easy being a Boulder County commissioner. In the best of times it’s a cross between housekeeping and playing referee. And then there are times like we’re having now when an emotional issue — in this case the expanded use of genetically modified crops on open space lands — has turned once-routine meetings into something more akin to cage fighting. It’s not an exaggeration.

The fear and anger being expressed regarding this issue are very real. And the frustrations are only growing as the commissioners close in on their final decision. But why has this issue become so volatile? In part, the answer lies in a difference of opinion about what the commissioners are actually deciding.

For many of those opposed to GM crops on open space, this issue is no less important than the health of their children and the future of our planet. Opponents of GM crops have long expressed their concern that these crops resulting from genetic tinkering are the cause of many rapidly expanding health issues such as allergies, autism, Alzheimer’s and cancer, to name a few. The food industry’s aversion to labeling products with GM ingredients is viewed by opponents as an acknowledgment that people wouldn’t buy such products if they knew they had been genetically modified, an assumption that has proven true in Europe, where labeling is required and people for the most part won’t touch the stuff. And for those who want less, not more, GM crops in Boulder County, the fact that the vast majority of the research stating that GM products are just as safe as their non-GM counterparts has been funded by Monsanto and other companies that stand to profit from the increasing use of GM crops renders such analysis questionable at best, sinister at worst.

For the opposition, the commissioners’ decision has quite literally become a choice of whether the need for six farmers to make a little more money trumps the health of the county’s 64,000 children and its exploding organics industry. But how are the commissioners approaching their decision?

First of all, the commissioners aren’t talking until after the county’s final cropland policy public hearing scheduled for tonight in Longmont (see page 13 for time and location). So speculating about their decision-making process is just that, speculation. We do know that staff is recommending that the six farmers in question be allowed to grow GM sugar beets, on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to the non-GM type they have been growing on the 960 acres of county open space they currently farm. We know that the commissioners are giving this recommendation strong consideration, which tells us that they believe that the GM sugar beets pose no immediate harm to the public. Despite what many anti-GM opponents believe, our three commissioners are county residents themselves and probably mean no harm to the greater population.

But even so, such beliefs regarding safety indicate that any commissioner voting for the use of GM crops on our open space is accepting that Monsanto’s science regarding the safety of its GM products is accurate. After all, the FDA has taken the same position. It should be noted, however, that many if not most of the world’s governments disagree with the FDA, and apparently our commissioners, with regard to commissioners, with regard to the safety of GM crops and GM food products. From Europe to South America, GM products are either banned or required to be labeled as such so that consumers wishing to avoid them can do so, and most do. Few European shops want to carry GM products because the population simply won’t buy them due to health concerns.

That said, it seems that for our commissioners, this decision is about something far less than it is for those opposed to GM crops. In fact, the only reasons to move forward and allow GM sugar beets on our 960 acres are a very small to nonexistent amount of money for the county, a little bit more profit for six farmers, and to fulfill a desire to encourage an ongoing farming presence on Boulder County open space (see page 13 for the economics of this decision). These aren’t bad reasons, but they hardly provide an emotional balance to our children’s health and the future of the world’s food supply. As noted at the beginning of this piece, it seems that the anti-GM crowd and our commissioners have a difference of opinion about what exactly is being decided.

But what if there were a third consideration? What if the price for allowing GM crops on open space land could be measured in millions of dollars in lost revenue to the people of Boulder County? What would be the responsible action for the commissioners to take if that were the case? This is far more than a hypothetical question. There are many already existing and potentially many more hidden costs to the citizens of our county resulting from the ongoing use of GM crops, particularly those on public open space, that represent a de facto endorsement of GM products by our county government.

In 1993 Boulder Weekly did an interview with an executive of the Schwinn Bicycle Company. After a century headquartered in Chicago, the company was relocating to Boulder, and we were curious why. The answer was simple. Schwinn had hired a research and consulting firm which had determined that a Boulder address in the bicycle industry, aka the Boulder brand, would be worth between $1.5 million and $2 million a year to the company. The Boulder brand is still a powerful revenue force for bicycle and other sporting goods companies, but it is equally powerful in other areas as well.

Including the natural and organic products industry.

In Boulder County alone, the natural and organic products industry has used the Boulder brand to grow itself into an estimated $1.5 billion (with a b) sector made up of more than 325 local companies employing 7,000 people. As a group, these businesses oppose the use of genetically modified crops on publicly owned lands because they believe it weakens the very Boulder brand that has brought so much success, prosperity and employment to the county.

Message to the commissioners: It doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong about GM crops on open space. By its very definition, when it comes to branding, perception is reality. If one natural/organic business leaves Boulder over this issue, or if one natural/organic business chooses not to relocate to Boulder because of the perception that the county government, due to its support for the proliferation of GMOs, is unsupportive of the natural/organics sector, then the costs, which could be in the millions for just one company, have far outweighed the benefits of six farmers and 960 acres of GM sugar beets.

This is not an unrealistic possibility.

The Independent Natural Food Retailers Association has called GM foods the most important issue facing the natural food industry. The organization points out that non-GM food products represent one of the fastest-growing trends among food manufacturers, with more than 3,000 products and 70 brands. These are just the kinds of businesses and jobs that the Boulder brand can bring to our citizenry.

Because GM crops tend to contaminate nearby non- GM crops — pollen blows on the wind or is carried by bees, insects and birds — it is becoming difficult for non-GM food manufacturers to find enough uncontaminated raw product. It is now estimated that 93 percent of all soy and 86 percent of all corn is GM. If Boulder County government is actively helping to increase the amount of GM crops here, why would a company whose business depends on clean, non-GM raw materials want to relocate to our area? Which brings up another hidden cost.

Because of the proliferation of GMO contamination, the natural/ organics industry and its non-GMO farmers are being forced to spend millions of dollars on testing to prove their products are indeed GMO-free. It is required for farmers to keep their organic certification and to prove to manufacturers that their crops aren’t contaminated. Every dollar that Boulder’s natural/organic industry spends on testing to prevent GMO contamination is another dollar that is taken out of the local economy and tax base.

In addition, all across America organic farmers are being financially devastated by GMO contamination. An organic corn farmer anticipating $4 plus for a bushel of his corn finds out it has been ruined by a nearby GMO crop. Now he has to settle for less than two dollars a bushel because he can no longer claim his corn is organic. Again, such crop losses can add up to millions of dollars and, as one might expect, lead to yet another source of hidden costs: lawsuits.

GM seeds are actually patented by Monsanto or some other company that developed them. When the wind blows and the non-GMO field across the way gets contaminated, Monsanto and its peers actually sue the contaminated farmer for possession of their patented crops. Again, when this occurs it is a hidden cost. In addition, the farmer whose crops have been contaminated can also sue the company and landowner responsible for their loss. One suit involving rice crops being contaminated by GMOs resulted in a payout of more than $700 million.

Some county officials don’t believe that the county (read as you and me) can be sued for contamination as a result of approving GM crop production on open space. It is a gray area at best, and with lawsuits reaching into the millions of dollars, I can’t self-respecting lawyer fail imaging any self-respecting lawyer failing to include the county in a suit.

Even if the county were to prevail, the cost of defending itself from one lawsuit would far outweigh the economic benefits of voting in favor of GM sugar beets on 960 acres. And this is the point.

The list of hidden costs goes on and on, from GMO contamination insurance (now being proposed for those who plant GM crops) to the cost incurred for labeling by the natural/ organic foods industry, which knows it must unfairly bear this expense because, unlike the rest of the world, the U.S. government won’t force the food industry to tell us that a product contains GMOs.

The current decision being pondered by the Boulder County commissioners should not be a complicated one. The commissioners are tasked with making decisions based on what is best for the most people in Boulder County. When it comes to increasing the amount and variety of GM crops allowed to be grown on public open space — our open space — the answer should be no.

To vote otherwise would be a dereliction of responsibility to the majority of citizens and our long-term economic well-being.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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You all need some facts about GM sugar beets.

1.  The resulting sugar chemical composition is IDENTICAL to non-GMO sugar.  Non of the GM traits are passed through to the sugar.

2.  GM beets are MUCH more environmentally friendly vs. Non GM beets.  Have you asked the 6 sugar beet farmers what chemicals and amounts they would put on GM beets vs. Non GM beets.  HUGE difference.

3.  Organic growers shoule always be required to prove their crops are Organic.  The testing will always happen. Otherwise, how do we really know?  And, by the way, Organic crops are allowed to use natural pesticides such as BT sprays on the crops.


Chemical analysis aside, the GMO beet DNA is markedly different. Environmentally friendly is a false construct and you ignore the environmental consequences of GMO DNA, which cannot ever be recalled, on the environment. And to your last point, organic farmers are required to report all inputs unlike your chemical-loving GMO brethren. Moreover, with the insane notion that other crops can coexist with GMOs, there is a very real risk of GM contamination destroying seed purity forever. There's a huge difference between a topical BT spray applied when needed versus the GMO approach of delivering BT in every plant cell...which is ultimately delivered to the end consumer.



How disgraceful: is Boulder to have no principles but be guided just by money and threats? The organic farmer groups denigrate GMOs in order to try to protect their own brand and expand their market share, selling expensive and worthless dreams. There are no added advantages of organic foods: no health benefits and no environmental benefits either, just a higher price as befits a fashion food. And of course organic farmers use pesticides but prefer to keep quiet about them. If six farmers want to use perfectly legal and tested GM crops, why not? They should not be denied their legitimate rights.


The pro-Monsanto GMO lobby just doesn't give up with the misinformation and corporate fictions. Most of us in Boulder don't want your goddamn GMOs, just like millions of Europeans who won't touch the crap when it's properly labeled.


Ken Bonetti seems to have overlooked all those Europeans (how many millions?) who DO buy GM foods, labeled as it is. And he should not suppose that everybody who says something sensible belongs to a "pro-Monsanto" lobby while Ken himself seems to be a spokesman for the self-styled "organic" trade.


If GMOs are so great, why does Monsanto fight labeling in the US? Also, France outlawed GMO crops, but an administrative court overturned the ban at Monsanto's behest. Here are what polls reveal about European attitudes toward GMOs. What Europeans think about GMOs Across Europe, consumers have rejected GMO foods and public concern over these products remains high. The Eurobarometer opinion poll published by the European Commission in December 2001 showed that 94.6% EU citizens want the right to choose, 85.9% want to know more before eating GMOs, and 70.9% simply do not want GM food. (see http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/press/2001/pr0612en-report.pdf ) In addition, in the latest Eurobarometer opinion pull in April 2005, 9 out of 10 people said that decision-makers should pay as much attention to environmental considerations as to economic and social factors. (see http://europa.eu.int/comm/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_217_en.pdf) Find out what people in your country think: Austria In April 1997, 1.2 million Austrians (a quarter of the electorate) called for a ban of GM in agriculture and foods. Croatia In a 1999 survey (of 500 people), 16% thought that GMOs were a good thing, 44% were against the technology. 53% would not eat GM food. A poll carried out in January 2002 revealed that 75.5% of Croats did not want to eat GMOs; 3.1% said they did want to, 5.2% did not know. 80.7% supported a draft GMO law (to ban GMOs), 8.4% did not support a ban, and 10.9% did not know. Czech Republic In April 2000, an opinion poll conducted for the Czech Television and Broadcasting companies showed 87% of men and 93% of women wished to have GM food visibly labelled. In November 2000, a survey by a Czech newspaper revealed that 99% of consumers did not want GM food to be sold in the Czech Republic. Denmark In 1998, a poll revealed that the majority of Danes were against GM food. In November 2000, the Nordic Industrial Fund carried out a survey in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden on GM foods and applications of genetic modification. The survey found that it was regarded as a major benefit in itself that a product is non-GM. When a product involved genetic modification, this elicited numerous negative associations, mainly "unhealthy" and "uncertainty". Finland See 'Denmark' second paragraph. France In a poll in November 1999, more than half of French people had serious reservations about the use of GMOs and 91% said that information about them was inadequate. 24% were against GMOs and said that cultivation of GM crops should be forbidden in France. Germany According to an opinion poll by Slowfood in August 2005, 79 % of Germans were agaisnts GMOs. Greece In a seminar held in November 2000, it was revealed by BEUC (European Consumers' Association) that since 1996, consumer resistance to GMOs had increased by a staggering 80%. Italy In March 2001, a poll carried out by People Swg (for the Ministry of Agriculture) found that 67% of people were against the use of GMOs in agricultural production; 75% thought legislation on food safety was inadequate; 4 out of 5 would spend more to get healthier food. The Netherlands In June 2001, a poll by the University of Twente indicated that 65% of Dutch people rejected GM foods (an increase from 52% in the last poll). Also in 2001, the government commissioned a "broad societal debate" on GM and food. The Terlouw Committee which executed this survey reported in early 2002 that "the general impression is that the public takes a very reserved stance on GM in food. The usefulness is doubted, the risks are feared and alternatives are being asked for". 69% of Dutch people who took part in the survey (through newspaper adverts) stated that they found the use of GM in food "unwanted". 43% of respondents did not want to allow GM foods at all. Less than 6% were satisfied with the current labelling regime according to present EU and Dutch law. More than 80% thought that labelling should go further than the present situation. 64.5% were of the opinion that in the Netherlands, labelling should be as strong as possible so that the consumer can be absolutely certain that he/she buys products containing no GM ingredients. 31% would allow GM crops to be grown only after their effects on nature and the environment were known, after many years of research. Norway See 'Denmark' second paragraph. Poland In a poll carried out in May 2000, 89% of respondents said that GM food should be additionally labelled. Portugal In early 2006, the 'Observa 2000' survey revealed that 29% of Portuguese people have no opinion on GMOs. 74.6% of people who have an opinion on GMOs believe that GMOs should not be marketed. Greetings, Carme Slovakia In an opinion poll commissioned by Greenpeace Slovakia in September 2001, 70% of respondents said they would prefer natural food to genetically modified food. Also, 74% said that food containing GM ingredients should be clearly marked. In May 2004, The TNS Agency carried out the survey on a representative sample of 1,015 respondents to monitor the attitude of Slovaks towards modified foods. One in two Slovaks think genetically modified food harms health. The view that genetically modified food has a detrimental effect on health was held more often by younger people between the ages of 18 to 29 and 30 to 39, people with higher levels of education, and respondents living in larger cities - in Bratislava and Kosice. Only one in 10 of those polled could not judge the influence of such products on human health. Three-quarters of those polled would also reconsider the consumption of a product, should they find a warning about genetic modification on its packaging. Of those polled, 36 percent would not consume a genetically modified food product at all and 38 percent would reduce their consumption of it. Only a quarter of respondents would continue to consume a product containing genetically modified ingredients without any reduction. Spain A survey carried out between March and April 2001, by the Center of Investigaciones Sociologicas (CIS) revealed that 53% of the public thought that advances in biotechnology (including genetic engineering) were dangerous to the environment; 49% thought they were dangerous to humans. When asked about the use of genetic engineering in agriculture and food production, 50% of Spaniards were opposed. Only 26% supported the technique. 63% said that they would not eat a potato with maize genes; 27% did not mind. For labelling of GM food, 92% thought that it should be obligatory to specify in the label if a nutritional product is genetically modified. Sweden See 'Denmark' second paragraph. Switzerland According to a opinion poll carried out by Coop in 2004. 83% of the population said that they don't want to eat genetically engineered food. 12% said that genetically engineered food is good. And 6% had no opinion. UK In July 2003, according to a Welsh Consumer Council report, amost half of consumers avoided buying GM food. Moreover, almost three-quaters of consumers agree that all food containing GM ingredients should be labelled even if it only contains a tiny amount. In September 2001, a study by the National Consumer Council showed that 80% of British consumers believed that meat from animals fed with GM feed should be clearly labelled. 42% wanted to see zero GM contamination of foods and almost two thirds (64%) said it was important that all foods containing any amount of GM ingredients should be labelled as such. An NOP survey in July 2004 revealed that two-thirds of the British population support new laws to prevent GM crops contamination our food and farming. The NOP World survey for Friends of the Earth interviewed 2002 adults aged 15 by telephone between 2-11 July 2004. They were asked: "Genetically Modified (GM) crops may contaminate non GM crops in neighbouring fields, or during handling and processing, which could lead to GM contamination of food. Would you support laws that prevent contamination occurring, or do you think that contamination is worth the risk because of the benefits of genetic modification?" On 2nd September 2004, a survey by the Consumers' Association finds more respondents say they are against GM crops than a similar representative sample of around 1,000 questioned two years ago. Only a quarter say they favour GM crops being grown in the UK, compared with almost a third in 2002. Six out of 10 Britons say they are concerned at use of genetic modification in food production and want to avoid GM foods.


Ken: You seem have more time than I do to argue the toss so I’ll keep it short. If GMOs are not so great why do 13 or 14 million farmers around the world grow them, each year with more famers in more countries planting GM crops on more land? I expect you will say they are all fooled and are doing it solely to increase Monsanto’s profits – and, who knows, you might actually believe that. There is a simpler explanation: it seems that GM crops work well and are worth the higher price of the seeds because of the greater savings in their cultivation Don’t put too much credence on the behavior of France. It is well attested that their president made a deal with environmental campaigners to ban the very successful French GM-corn cultivation in turn for their letting him have a free hand with nuclear power. That ban was just last week struck down and declared illegal by France’s highest court following a ruling by the European Court of Justice. Not everyone in France is happy that their government choose ignore such court rulings. And, if GMOs are not so great, why do most European cattle farmers feed their animals on GM-soy fodder during the winter and are now looking to feeding their chickens on GM as well? Why aren’t those animals dropping down dead as a result if one is to believe the nonsense put out by those who seem to think as you do. And if they are so bad, why are labeled GM products on the shelves in the grocery stores in several EU countries, with people buying them year after year? Your polling data is well out of date. Ask what people do, not what they tell pollsters. One study from 2008 showed no correlation between what people say in response to questionnaires about GM foods and what they do in the grocery stores so don’t put too much reliance on replies to questions. Other investiagtors have had similar experiences. In the UK, the Food Standards Agency, an official body, regularly monitors public concerns to find that unease about GM is dropping steadily with just 3% expressing any worries when they are not prompted; but if they are prompted, then, of course, they suddenly remember to tell to pollster of their worries, just as they do with transfats, hormones and steroids, and antibiotics in meat. So forget your prejudices and stop basing your arguments on the agendas of the anti-GM brigade and their allies in the organic lobby. Above all, read the peer-reviewed scientific literature to get a grip on GM reality: learn appreciate and aveluate evidence, and the conclusions to which it leads, not the factoids of the campaigners. You will remember what the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts”. It’s been nice knowing you if only via a website but there are too many other things to do so I will read any reply you post but I may not be coming back.