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Home / Articles / News / News /  Behind the GMO curtain
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Thursday, December 15,2011

Behind the GMO curtain

Big Ag threatens war on Boulder

By Jefferson Dodge and Joel Dyer

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.

'TREATED UNFAIRLY'

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.”

SLIPPERY SLOPE

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.

MONSANTO'S TAKE

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.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT

The article makes it sound like the farmers are just doing the bidding of big Ag business. But nothing is further from the truth. This is a case where the interests of the farmers and their suppliers coincides.

 

I grew in a farm family. Believe me, nobody can make a busy farmer show up at a meeting he or she doesn't want to attend. A typical farmer might do tens of thousands of dollars of business each year with Monsanto and other big Ag companies, and because of this they wield some clout. They're not just sheep doing their masters bidding.

 

The Farm Bureau is not some sinister organization. It's made up entirely of farmers, and farmers fund its organization. My own father took time out of his schedule to volunteer to sit on one of the Farm Bureau's boards.

 

If Boulder County decides to ban GMOs, it will make production of sugar beets and other crops uneconomical. The county has a right to do this, of course. But it will affect the farmers who lease the land, and you can't blame them for wanting to protect their livlihood.

 

yes, so we let the farmers make a few bucks, and at what cost to the General Public. I have farmed enough to know that equal if not greater yields can be achieved through organic sustainable farming. I believe the farmers have been sold a bill of goods on the GMO topic. I have read up extensively on this subject. And this is some potentially very dangerous stuff. And if the skeptics are right it will be too late, for it will already have contaminated the world, irreversibly. As always in these modern times we are faced with greed vs. public well being.

 

You seem like a fraud. You stand behind the shroud of anonymous and appear to be a tool of the people that you claim are "just trying to make a living" BS! Show your self. There is science that is available that disputes your claims of greater yields. And there is evidence of the destruction of the biodiversity of the soil and animals dying from GMO crops.

 

The vast majority of UN-biased research doesn't support the industry claim that GMO's have better yields. The Rodale Institute's Farming Systems Trial has demonstrated that GMO crops render soil's carbon-absorbing abilities useless, affecting the environment, the "Failure to Yield" study shows how the numbers are manipulated and how really only one single GMO crop has shown and yield increases and they're so unsubstantial it's a stretch of any imagnination and the IAASTD's Global Report condemns GMO's as well. Not to mention Monsanto doesn't make its studies available for peer-review by independent scientists because every time they've tried that in the past it's been bad news and then they've ended that person's career with their government and scholastic influence, and the few long-term studies approaching a year have shown major organ malfunction and icnreases in cancer and spontaenous abortions. GMO's are not good for our race, they could be our giant asteroid a la the dinosaurs. The farmers just never get around to seeing the real data, they blindly support Monsanto through propaganda.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Boulder Weekly, for the bang-up job of cracking this vastly important story, and bringing it into the light of public scrutiny. 

I teach environmental economics at Front Range. I am acutely aware of how the corporate domination of public policy regarding environmental safety has been extremely damaging to the sustainability of our natural environment, and to the health of the human species as a part of that.

After reading this story, I'm afraid the Farmer Bureau's support of GM crops is sadly misplaced, by putting their own short term economic gain above the long term health of the larger ecology; and thus putting them at odds with the citizens of Boulder County, who are quite wiliing to take them on in political battle. 

As stewards of the land, these farmers need to take their responsibility to the land more seriously, instead of acting like loyal lapdogs to the big ag corporations that are pulling at their emotional and economical heartstrings.

For if they were to closely examine the scientific data, and the evidence from the experience of their agricultural bretheran, the organic farming community, I think they would be forced to admit their position on GM crops is wrong.

I applaud the community service that Boulder Weekly has done by allowing an open public debate on this critical issue.

Sincerely,

Rick Casey

Economics instructor, FRCC 

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT

Monsanto sells seeds as well as pesticides for those seeds to farmers. They get those farmers coming and going, and if those farmers stop using Monsanto's seeds, Monsanto's stock drops, and as every red blooded American knows, stock dropping signals the end of the world.

This isn't just about Monsanto's influence on 80% (or more) of packaged GMO products on store shelves, this is about industry growing powerful enough to dictate what our government does, where elected officials only act in favor of their biggest donors and horribly manipulative TV and print ads skew the facts to make voters support those same stock prices.

GMOs have no place in the future of agriculture, and neither do multi-national chemical companies. 

 

i think it's called organized crime.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT

I think this graphic illustrates the problem with Monsanto.

 

http://geke.us/Monsanto.001.jpg

 

The idea that there is "so much misinformation out there about Monsanto" is absurd, this is one of the worst companies the planet has ever had to put up with. From PCB's to dioxin, GMO's, aspartame, birth-defect-causing Glyphosate, Monsanto is truly a terror. They get their own way through lobbying, Obama in 2007 said he'd get GMO's labelled then we saw the appointments that proved he lied: Michael Taylor, Elena Kagen, Islam Siddiqui, Tom Vilsack. Monsanto's open door with government is well documented.

 

Monsanto outright declined to be interviewed for the movie "The World According to Monsanto" because they knew they didn't have a leg to stand on. This is one company who I wish would be vanquished from the face of the Earth before they destroy the entire food chain.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT

Jeff Dodge and Joel Dyer do a great job of unmasking the corporate funded "grassroots" farmer turnout for the County GMO hearing.  GMOs have always been about industrial agriculture versus public and environmental health.  It's kind of a no-brainer. 

The disturbing aspect is that our County Commissioners are not solidly in favor of phasing out GMOs asap.  Perhaps niavely I campaigned and voted for these each of these commissioners believing that they represented the interests of the majority of Boulder residents in contrast to 6 agribusiness farmers who want to grow Monsanto GMOs.  This too should be a no brainer for the Commissioners. 

 

I must agree with K. Bonetti: Jeff Dodge and Joel Dyer have done a brilliant job in unmasking this unbelievable theatre of the absurd. In following this charade for the last 2 1/2 years, I have lost all faith in the integrity of the Boulder County government and Boulder County Parks and Open Space. It is my opinion (and it is only an opinion) that Monsanto has long had a "Master Plan" for Boulder County, perhaps evolving in some way from the "Danish Plan." And just the fact that so many biotech companies and interests have been present throughout this whole process (most evident in the staged December 8 meeting) should suggest that there is more here than meets the eye. Hip Tip: At least one documentary is already in the beginning stages.

 

 
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