Had Dorothy and her dog stumbled into the Dec. 8 county commissioners meeting, where the issue of genetically modified crops on open space was the topic, she might have uttered the line, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Boulder any more.” And for good reason.
From the giant, green John Deere tractors parked at the entrance of the Longmont Convention Center like a couple of General Patton’s Shermans to the sea of green hats on the heads of hundreds of overalled and plaid-shirted farmers inside, it was clearly not your average Boulder County Commissioners gathering. The gauze skirts and creatively haired intellectuals were badly outnumbered this time around. But how to explain such a scene in a county where the number of organic tofu eaters on any given day dwarfs the number of active farmers, which is estimated at less than 800 total?
The meeting in Longmont was the final opportunity for public input into the county’s decision on a cropland policy that would allow farmers to plant additional GM crops on Boulder County open space. At previous cropland policy meetings where public comment was permitted, the anti-GMO crowd clearly had greater numbers than those from the pro-GMO agriculture faction.
So where exactly did that room full of green hats sporting the acronym F.A.I.R. come from, and what does F.A.I.R. mean, anyway? For a supposed grassroots farming organization that turned out in force for the purpose of influencing a decision by county government, getting the full story on F.A.I.R. was a surprisingly difficult task.
But it revealed that some powerful people are threatening Boulder County’s state funding if the GMO issue doesn’t go their way.
Boulder Weekly reporters interviewed more than 15 people at the meeting wearing the green F.A.I.R. hats, but not one person knew what the acronym they proudly had on their head meant. Some took a crack at it. One said, “Farmers at Integrated Research.” Turns out he was sort of close. Several offered, “Farmers Against …” before dawning a blank stare brought on by the difficulty of confronting the mysterious undefined I.R. written on their headgear. Another spit out the prophetic “Farmers against you,” but most just shrugged their shoulders.
Finally, in a room next door, where F.A.I.R. had met earlier in the day, two employees of the Colorado Farm Bureau finally solved the riddle of the acronym. If the guys from Farm Bureau are correct — and there are several reasons to believe they are — then F.A.I.R stands for Farmers Alliance for Integrated Resources.
It appears that the enthusiastic grassroots organization that turned out last week in support of GMOs on open space exists primarily in hat form.
Dick Miller, a member of the Boulder County Food and Agriculture Policy Council (FAPC), says that F.A.I.R. was a response to the fact that the Nov. 15 joint public comment hearing by the FAPC and the county Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee (POSAC) was dominated by the anti-GMO crowd.
“That pretty well fried my ass,” he says. Miller, a farmer who leases county open space land for his Rock Creek Farm near Hwy. 287 and Dillon Road, says that after the hearing, he shot off a scathing email to the Colorado Farm Bureau saying they hadn’t done enough. A group of no more than 10 local farmers began meeting at his house, Miller says, and that group began rallying their farmer friends and others to get a big turnout at the Dec. 8 event.
“I wore down three cell phone batteries the day before the hearing,” he says.
“The blogs say the whole thing was orchestrated by Monsanto, and it’s just not true. This was a farmer-generated response. When you start threatening somebody’s livelihood … Some are third and fourth-generation farmers, and there’s a lot of emotional feelings, and there gets to be a point in time when you say enough’s enough.”
He describes the acronym “F.A.I.R.” and the name Farmers Alliance for Integrated Resources as kind of a last-minute decision.
“At the tail end, we felt like we needed to come up with a name, and we felt like we were being treated unfairly, so we chose that,” Miller says. “It’s not a formal, organized group, but we had to stand for something, so that’s what we chose.”
He adds that “integrated resources” is “a catch-phrase for trying to make everything co-exist.”
Miller and his son Scott paid for the hats, he says, and they paid for renting the room next door to the Longmont conference room where the hearing was held.
Still, the influence of Big Ag in the Boulder County GMO fight is beginning to show itself. Monsanto and other Big Ag fingerprints have been left here and there. A bulletin board in the room listed many F.A.I.R. “sponsors,” including Monsanto, Syngenta, Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Corn Growers Association, Western Sugar Cooperative, plus approximately 30 farmers.
Miller says the long list of F.A.I.R. “sponsors” posted at the hearing did not actually give money, but gave permission for their names to be associated with the effort.
However, information obtained by Boulder Weekly shows that the Colorado Corn Growers Association placed the slick, full-color ads supporting GMOs that have been running in local newspapers. The ads say they were paid for by F.A.I.R.
In 2009, Boulder Weekly uncovered the fact that dietician Mary Lee Chin had been paid by the Colorado Farm Bureau to speak in favor of GMOs at a July 23, 2009, POSAC meeting regarding the sugar beet proposal.
But Miller and Colorado Farm Bureau Executive Vice President Troy Bredenkamp say they know of no one who was paid to speak to the commissioners, aside from regular employees of companies like Monsanto and Bayer.
BEHIND THE CURTAIN
So while the farmers and their solidarity on this issue exhibited at the recent meeting were quite real, the organization depicted on the green hats was merely an illusion, something more akin to the floating green head of the Wizard who screamed “silence” at Dorothy and her pals, sending kids scurrying behind the couch. When it comes to F.A.I.R. and the Dec. 8 well-orchestrated appearance of mass support for planting GMOs on county open space, as in Oz, there may be hands working the levers behind the curtains. Many of the farmers at the meeting had driven great distances to support their Boulder County peers. They came from east and west, from Nebraska to Mesa County. It was a regional show of force. But why would people come so far to fight for the opportunity of six farmers to plant GMO sugar beets on 960 acres of Boulder County open space? Because it’s not just about Boulder County. It’s about precedence and fear.
Nick Colglazier, public policy director for state affairs at Farm Bureau Colorado, rallied the farm troops on an agricultural radio show called the BARN, urging farmers everywhere to attend the Dec. 8 meeting and speak.
“Are [GMOs] completely safe?” he told radio host Brian Allmer. “Probably not, because nothing in this world is completely safe. … Unfortunately, these people have a very anti-GMO stance, and they’re very ready to let people know and push their agenda onto other people.”
When asked why people around the state or nation should be concerned about little old Boulder County, Colglazier said, “This could set some very, very large precedent. The ramifications for this are much larger than just our farmers in Boulder County. This could be seen sparking debates and sparking new regulations across the country for places that would like to see biotech crops banned not on just public land that’s owned by the county, but they would like to ban them completely outright.”
In the BARN interview, Colglazier even took credit for a pro-GMO petition created by F.A.I.R., saying, “We’ve actually set up an online petition. We would really encourage anybody who can’t be there to share their voice, share their support, so that we can have their name down and show that to the Boulder County commissioners.”
But he downplayed the Farm Bureau’s involvement in the effort in a subsequent interview with Boulder Weekly.
“F.A.I.R. was completely developed by the farmers of Boulder County,” Colglazier says. “We had nothing to do with F.A.I.R.”
He also backpedaled on the wide-ranging impacts the decision could have outside Boulder County.
“I don’t know if we view it as a threat necessarily,” Colglazier says. “It’s taking away somebody’s right, it’s just as absurd as taking away somebody’s right to produce crops organically.”
When asked if it would set a dangerous precedent, there was an 11-second pause.
“Our biggest concern is the welfare of our members and the welfare of agriculture in Colorado,” he says. “Taking away a tool such as biotech would severely impact our industry, even if it was just in these 900 acres, because the moment you start not being able to produce as much, it all adds up. It may be one bushel, which could feed one more cow here, which could feed one more mouth here or abroad.”
Miller, the farmer, agrees that the commissioners’ upcoming decision on Dec. 20 is not just about those 960 acres where sugar beets are farmed.
“This is not a Boulder County issue,” he says. “It has far-reaching implications for agriculture across the U.S.”
The many out-of-county farmers who attended Thursday’s meeting came because they have been convinced that Boulder County is the battleground for the future, the edge of the proverbial slippery slope. If our county commissioners say “no” to GMOs on 960 acres, then what is to prevent any government entity anywhere from saying “no” to GMOs? Much of the farming community is convinced that their very way of life will be taken from them if they fail to stop the anti-GMO movement right here, right now, in Boulder County. In one interview after another in the lobby of the convention center, the sentiment was the same: If the anti-GMO activists win here, I’m next. It is a fear shared by Big Ag.
Consider what happened in 2003 when another county government, Mendocino County, Calif., became the first government to attempt to prevent the planting of GMO crops on its property as well as on private lands. The opposition was more obvious in Mendocino County because, unlike in Boulder County, the citizens were allowed to vote on the issue — and where there is voting, there is a money trail.
Under the guise of a group called CropLife America, biotech and chemical companies including Monsanto, Dupont and Dow spent nearly $700,000 in a failed attempt to defeat the county’s effort to go GMO-free. That’s a lot of money in a county with only 87,000 people at the time. It turned out to be $55 for each “no” vote.
In a 2003 interview with Boulder Weekly, Doug Mosel, then campaign coordinator for GMO-Free Mendocino, said, “The amount of opposition and the level of spending to defeat such a measure is some indication of the desperation of the bio-ag industry to take control of the food system, and to force on farmers and consumers alike genetically modified food.”
CropLife America still exists today and may have found its way into the Boulder County GMO fight by way of a couple of its favorite politicians.
At its Oct. 27 annual meeting and awards ceremony in Washington D.C., CropLife America presented its “State Legislative Award” to two elected officials, both coincidentally from the GMO battleground state of Colorado. The winners were Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling) and Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray). Rep. Sonnenberg’s connection to CropLife America took on more significance when Boulder Weekly discovered an ominous tweet from the representative dated Nov. 19, which read, “In Farm Bureau Policy discussion at their annual convention. Just passed policy to defund Boulder County if they dictate how to farm.” It should be noted that Sonnenberg is a majority member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. For his part, Sen. Brophy sits on the Senate Finance Committee, among others. (For more on the threat to “defund” Boulder County, see story here.)
JOINED AT THE TOP
To understand the connections within Big Ag, you must understand the structure of the Farm Bureau system, which is a membership organization for farmers that provides services such as insurance, lobbying and educational opportunities. It is an extremely powerful political force in rural America. As a trusted advisor to the agricultural community, the Farm Bureau system has also become a significant partner and pitchman for Big Ag’s major players.
The organization is a giant umbrella. Every county has a Farm Bureau made up of local farmers. All of the counties fall under the umbrella of their state organizations, such as the Colorado Farm Bureau, and the states are each a part of the national organization, The American Farm Bureau Federation. The Farm Bureau system is no small player.
In fact, one of the more interesting connections between the Farm Bureau, Monsanto, Dupont, John Deere and other major agriculture players is a newly formed organization called the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), which describes its mission as a “collaboration to lead the dialogue and answer Americans’ questions about how we raise food.” Translation: The USFRA has launched a $30 million campaign to convince us that our food is safe. In other words, GMOs, pesticides and antibiotics in meat, etc., are a good idea and perfectly safe. In another example of just how important the Farm Bureau is to the Big Ag agenda, Bob Stallman, the current president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, was also named as the president of USFRA. But why now? What has triggered this need to spin the food safety debate?
In a report for Grist examining why the USFRA had come to exist, Anna Lappe went straight to the heart of the matter by asking a representative from Ketchum, the public relations firm hired by the USFRA, why the major ag players had come together. The answer was short: “Food Inc., and movies like it.”
Monsanto and others, including the Farm Bureau, have also created their own controversial television series on agriculture. Controversial in that those who are trying to prevent its airing on public television claim it puts forward an unduly positive image of industrial agriculture.
What this web of financial and political connections makes clear is that what is happening in Boulder County is about far more than a vote by our commissioners over the future of GM sugar beets on 960 acres.
For the biggest companies that can only continue to maintain their profits as long as the push towards industrial agriculture — including patented GMO technology — continues, what happens in Boulder County may turn out to be as significant on the political front as Food Inc. was on the educational front.
So when the Farm Bureau votes to “defund Boulder County ” based on its farm policies, and that vote gets celebrated with a tweet out of the meeting by a Colorado politician on the House Appropriations Committee who just so happened to have received a national award by a Big Ag-funded organization with a history of spending big bucks to fight governments opposed to GMOs, it should be taken very seriously.
According to Lisa Drake, Monsanto’s Englewood-based lead for state and local governmental affairs, her company had nothing to do with generating farmer attendance at the Dec. 8 hearing. She describes the crowd as “one of the biggest turnouts I’ve ever seen. … It absolutely was a grassroots effort.”
Drake says the only people paid by Monsanto to attend were herself and Daniel Goldstein, a senior science fellow for the company who testified. She acknowledged that “a number of people reached out” to the faculty from Colorado State University who defended the use of GMOs at the hearing, but some “showed up of their own volition.”
She acknowledges that Monsanto and the Farm Bureau share the same interests, but she says there are wildly inaccurate claims about Monsanto, such as the report that the company regularly sues farmers for being in possession of Monsanto seeds that have drifted onto their property through no fault of their own.
“We sure don’t make it a practice of suing our own customers,” Drake says.
She downplayed the idea that a GMO ban on Boulder County open space would set a dangerous precedent for the industry.
“We were there because the farmers asked us to be there, and because there is so much misinformation out there about Monsanto,” Drake says.