County staff: Allow GMOs

Jefferson Dodge | Boulder Weekly

If the Boulder County commissioners follow the recommendations of their own staff, the planting of additional genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will be allowed on publicly funded open space.

David Bell, agricultural resource manager for Boulder County Parks and Open Space, told Boulder Weekly that his department is advising the county commissioners to approve a “co-existence” scenario in which genetically modified plants would, pending a case-by-case evaluation, be allowed to be grown on county lands.

The recommendation is consistent with the wishes of a commissioner-appointed committee, the Cropland Policy Advisory Group (CPAG), even though two other standing advisory commissions — and the majority of those giving testimony at recent public hearings — have urged the board to phase out, if not end immediately, the use of GMOs.

The commissioners are set to hear public comment on the issue tonight, Dec. 8, in Longmont, about two and a half years after a controversial request from six farmers to add genetically modified sugar beets to the list of GMOs permitted on open space, in addition to genetically modified corn. A meeting for the board to decide the issue has been tentatively scheduled for Dec. 15 or Dec. 20, according to Commissioner Will Toor.

Bell told Boulder Weekly that the CPAG recommendation carries more weight than those of the Parks and Open Space Advisory Commission and the Food and Agricultural Policy Council, which both recommended a phase-out.

“As a staff, we feel [CPAG] has put the most time into this issue,” he says, adding that CPAG had several experts from around the country weigh in on the topic.

Bell pointed out that a county survey of public sentiment about GMOs was split more evenly than a similar survey conducted by the group GMO Free, which showed that a majority are opposed to growing genetically modified crops on taxpayer-funded lands.

When asked about the economic impact of the decision, he says that the six farmers could make an additional $392,697 annually if they were allowed to grow GM sugar beets, and the county open space department could collect an additional $111,000 a year as a result of agreements with those farmers. But he downplayed the idea that county staff have a vested interest in GMOs because of that, saying it is simply a possible revenue stream that could keep open space officials from asking the commissioners for more funding from an already strapped budget.

“It’s not really a vested interest, I think it’s just nice to have a program that’s self-sustaining, where we don’t have to compete with other county projects,” he says, adding that nearly all county profits from agricultural land are poured back into helping farmers pay for things like infrastructure, water, seeds and fertilizer.

He also said the county attorney has determined that Boulder County would not be held liable if companies such as GMO giant Monsanto saw its products “drift” onto farmland owned by Boulder County or adjacent properties. It would be the farmers, not the county, held responsible, Bell says. He acknowledged that lawsuits against the county are possible, but “we don’t think it would go very far.”

And if all 12,000 of the county’s irrigated acres were forced to go organic, for example, Bell says there would probably be enough farmers — and market demand — to lease only about half of that land, leaving the county holding the bag for the other 6,000 acres, for which it would have to pay $1.5 million a year to maintain or $3.6 million to reseed with native grasses. Presumably, keeping the status quo of conventional, non-GMO crops on county open space would be cost-neutral.

The hearing will begin at 6 p.m. at the Longmont Conference Center, at 1850 Industrial Circle.