Bad seed

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

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.