GMOs vs local food system

Is county government depriving our economy of millions of dollars by making the wrong choice on open space lands?


It’s springtime in Boulder County. Birds are building nests, lawns get a little greener with each passing day and, like the swallows to Capistrano, the talk of how to stop genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from being planted on county open space lands has returned.

This year, the discussion of GMOs comes with a twist in the form of a question. If it’s possible for county government to stop allowing GMO crops to be grown on open space, and by doing so, also generate millions of additional dollars into the Boulder County economy in the form of environmentally friendly economic development, does county government have a fiduciary duty to county residents to make that happen as quickly as possible?

It’s a good question, considering that just such a scenario is not only possible, but apparently, quite practical to implement as well, raising another question: Why has the county not been doing more to make it happen? These questions have come to light from a study that apparently didn’t go anywhere, a study actually commissioned by Boulder County less than five years ago that appears to have gotten lost in the shuffle of the great GMO debate.


* * * *

Back in 2009, Boulder County government seemed like a pretty forward-looking entity. At least that’s the impression food system analyst Ken Meter got when the county hired him to study the potential for the citizens of Boulder County to become a self-determined community.


Meter, who is president of the Crossroads Resource Center in Minneapolis, Minn., believes that creating truly self-determined communities is a necessity if we are to continue to live well in a world that is addicted to fossil fuels and continuing to warm at an alarming rate. During a recent interview with Boulder Weekly, the analyst described the work he produced for the county approximately four years ago.

Meter’s report was titled “Boulder County Local Farm & Food Economy.” It researched a variety of data to determine facts like: what crops are grown in the county and how much it costs to grow those crops; where those crops are eventually sold; how much county residents spend on food grown from outside the county; food-related health conditions; what food issues affect low-income residents in the county, and others.

Meter’s study found that while the county’s population “has more than doubled since 1969, there has been only limited public planning to assure a secure and stable food supply.”

One of the principles behind becoming a self-determined community is that the population living in a defined area such as a county should be able to locally produce as much of its own food supply as possible.

Part of Meter’s work for the county was to analyze the potential of locally grown food as a tool for economic development, but to be fair to Meter and his work, generating increased revenue from county-owned farmland or other food production is not the ultimate goal of his efforts.

Meter says, “County land should be set aside for the production of fresh vegetables, meats and fruits to be used by the local population. It requires a county to sit down and say, ‘We have this many people to feed and this much land.’ It takes time, capital and political will to create this kind of, what I like to call community development rather than economic development. If they don’t do it, they will not have enough food as oil prices rise and transporting food from distant places becomes unrealistic. It will raise prices and make it difficult for low-income people to eat. The time to plan the local food system is now. We have to start planning a life that is less oil-dependent if we are going to survive on this planet.”

When asked why his report, which was, after all, commissioned by the county, never seemed to get any traction, Meter says the answer is simple: “timing.”

“The Food and Agriculture Policy Council was just forming in 2009, and they saw this $350 million investment that the county had made in open space as a great opportunity to create a local food system,” he says. “I came in and presented the report and they were really enthusiastic. A couple of the commissioners also seemed very receptive to the ideas. But that was right when the GMO fracas erupted. With limited resources and time, the GMO debate took over and the report just got lost, for the most part.”

This is the reason that Meter does what he does. And creating such a locally sustainable food system is indeed a needed vision for the county. But as with all grand ideas that require long-term planning, money and political will on the part of elected local officials and staff, getting started can be very difficult and, unfortunately, often doesn’t happen in a substantive manner.

When asked about Meter’s food study, county officials who still remember that it exists claim that the research is a part of the county’s long-term planning, but that it will take many years to move in that direction.

“We are having the conversation, but I know the public likes things to happen faster,” says county Agricultural Resources Manager David Bell.

* * * *

But there is still hope for Meter’s research to affect Boulder County open space lands and agriculture in the near future, even if it is in a more limited manner than the analyst would desire.

There is a hidden gem in Meter’s analysis that provides a model that can, and many believe should, be immediately acted upon by the county, particularly

when it comes to the commissioners’ annual decision to continue to allow GMO crops with Monsanto’s patented traits to be grown on county open space, despite the opposition of the majority of county residents.

In Meter’s study, under the heading “Balance of Cash Receipts and Production Costs,” Meter found that “Boulder County ranchers and farmers sell $54 million of commodities per year (1994-2006 average), spending $64 million to raise them, for an average loss of $10 million each year.”

The study also found that “the farm sector as a whole has not earned a positive cash flow from raising commodities (though clearly some individual farms have made money) since 1994 … Farmers spent $15 million more producing crops and livestock in 2006 than they earned from sales of those products.”

It is a shocking finding. Commodity crops, which are nearly entirely GMO crops, being grown on Boulder County farms, including open space lands, are losing on average $10 million a year for the people growing them, and this calculation is made after taking into account all farm subsidies.

This means that less revenue is being generated and spent within the county than would be if the crops being grown were profitable.

The next part of Meter’s report that should weigh upon the commissioners’ decision to continue to allow GMO commodity crops on open space lands comes under the heading “The County’s Consumers.”

This section states, “Boulder county consumers spend $662 million buying food each year, including $374 million for home use. Most of this food is produced outside the county. Only $715,000 of food products (2 percent of farm cash receipts, and 0.1 percent of local consumer needs) are sold by farmers directly to consumers.

“The estimated change in net assets for all county households was a combined loss of $361 million in 2006 alone. This places additional pressure on Boulder County residents as they pay for food.”

What all this means is that farmers are losing $10 million a year by growing mostly GMO commodity crops, while spending, according to the study, another “$23 million buying inputs from external suppliers, for a total outflow of $33 million from the county economy.”

At the same time, Boulder County residents spend more than $600 million a year to buy food from outside the county, for a combined total loss to the county economy of more than $630 million a year, due to our current non-local food system.

As Meter points out, “this loss amounts to nearly 13 times the value of all commodities raised in the county.”

It is a staggering number that could be lowered almost immediately if the county were to take certain practical actions. And there is no time like the present, when you consider that if Boulder County residents were to buy just 9 percent of the food that they eat at home directly from farmers and ranchers living within the county, it would produce an economic windfall to the county of an additional $34 million of new farm income, an amount equal to the entire annual farm sales in the county.

By buying locally grown food, the $34 million would get spread around to county businesses, and would then translate into more jobs, and therefore even more disposable income in the area. This is the economic multiplier effect that can only occur as long as each stage of the food system is kept within the county. Once a mill or a company operating and/or paying most of its taxes outside the county becomes involved in the chain, the multiplier effect is diminished or extinguished: no new local jobs, no new local taxes generated, and so on.

To maximize food as a tool for economic development, it has to be grown, processed, sold and consumed within the county.

The truth is, the county can get started on this robust local food and economic development model far more quickly and easily than citizens have been led to believe. The pieces have been in place for some time now.

Boulder County is one of the nation’s epicenters for organic food manufacturing. As many as 350 companies within the county are involved with organic food on some level. Some are large manufacturers, others are farmers of varying size and still others are small food processors. Together, these companies could easily use much or all of the non-GMO food that could be grown on county open space lands. As a first step toward Meter’s vision of a self-determined community, some companies within the organic food industry have expressed their interest to the county in purchasing non-GMO crops.

So what’s the hold-up? It depends on who you ask.

* * * *

Mary VonBreck of ReKindle Consulting, who served as the campaign manager for GMO Free Boulder when the county commissioners were weighing whether to allow GMOs on county open space in 2011, says the Meter study and the model it suggests for Boulder County reflect the same conclusion that United Nations studies on world hunger have reached.

“The only way we can feed the world is to feed ourselves,” VonBreck says. “Whether it’s a village in Africa or a county like Boulder, we need to begin looking at how we take care of our own.”

Environmental and food sustainability issues aside, she agrees that moving toward Meter’s model is a no-brainer from a strictly economic standpoint.

“We’re very prosperous here, and yet we’ve come up with a model that loses $10 million a year,” VonBreck says. “That, to me, was astounding. In the business community, you just can’t run a company that way.”

She adds that the county’s open space was purchased with taxpayer money, and county officials have a duty to manage it responsibly.

“Why would you ask taxpayers to continue to give money to something that’s losing money, and then ask them to subsidize those same farmers?” VonBreck asks. “The whole point is to preserve open space, but we should be preserving it in a way that doesn’t lose [money]. If you’re going to ask the taxpayer to fund the purchase of open space, we have to manage it in a way that doesn’t leave our next generation with a huge problem.

“Who wants to operate at a $10 million-a-year loss?” she adds. “Well, sign me up. Where can I get that job?”

VonBreck says the concept of keeping more of the county’s agricultural products bought and sold in-house prompted her to redouble efforts to connect local organic companies with farmers and county staff. Late last summer, she says, she helped organize a meeting attended by county staffer Bell, County Commissioner Deb Gardner, local wheat farmer Keith Bateman and Doug Radi of Rudi’s Organic Bakery, among others. According to VonBreck, Rudi’s was interested in buying more organic wheat locally, but that would require some existing conventional farmers like Bateman to convert to organic. (Bateman could not be reached by press time.)

One outcome of the meeting, VonBreck says, is that Bell agreed to identify a consultant to help calculate details about the costs and logistics needed to transition farmers to organic wheat.

“I don’t think that ever happened,” she says. “I don’t think he ever did his job from the meeting. And that was disappointing.

“So my question is, if all of this is being offered, if the companies are sitting at the table saying, figure out what it would cost you, let’s start talking about making a deal, why the continual refusal?” VonBreck asks. “It’s what the citizens want, it’s what the businesses want, and yet somehow these farmers have the right to handcuff the entire county on their food.”

Bell, on the other hand, says he doesn’t recall the ball being left in his court for follow-up.

“I don’t remember that being one of the outcomes of that meeting,” he told BW. “I don’t remember that being a request.”

He adds that open space staff are continuing the discussions with Rudi’s, and that reports of the county dragging its feet on the matter are inaccurate.

As for the Meter report, Bell says he plans to meet with the county staffer who commissioned that study this week to learn more about it, since it was produced before he joined the open space department.

But he questioned some of the numbers that Meter used in the study, and he says he struggles with the concept that exporting the county’s agricultural products is generating a loss.

“For me, it’s pretty confusing to look at, in that little snapshot, what those numbers really mean and how they relate to the bigger picture,” Bell says.

Plus, he says, there are many challenges and details that must be addressed before being able to make significant progress toward the model suggested by Meter’s study.

He lists three key areas where there are unanswered questions about what the organic companies would need from farmers: cost, quantity and quality. The first, he says, might be one of the biggest possible stumbling blocks, because conventional farmers aren’t going to want to switch to organic or sell locally if it hurts their bottom line.

“If we buy all your ad space for a dime a day, that doesn’t really work for you,” Bell says.

By the same token, the companies may be reluctant to pay more than they currently pay for crops. He says he and the farmers are still waiting for the companies to provide more details about what they’d be willing to pay for the products in question.

The same goes for quantity and quality. According to Bell, he and the farmers are still waiting for specifics on the amount of crop needed and the quality required, like the minimum protein levels in organic wheat that Rudi’s can accept. (Bread can’t be made from wheat if protein levels are too low.) There are other questions, he says. Is there enough water available on a given parcel? Will the buyer commit to buying all of the harvest, or will the farmer be stuck storing some, or sent scrambling to find other buyers?

“You can only sell so many tomatoes at the farmers’ market,” Bell explains.

He says another concern among farmers is having a single buyer when it comes to organic, since there are fewer buyers than with conventional farming and fewer options if something falls through.

Bell adds that the county would have to identify at least three crops that will be organic and locally sold, since farmers rotate crops on a single parcel from year to year for soil health and other reasons — and you can’t mix conventional crops with organic ones or certification is lost. (The three-year transition to organic would have to be restarted as soon as conventional crops tainted an organic parcel.)

He says he would have no problem moving to such a model, if all of those questions were answered, and both the farmers and companies were satisfied. But he stopped short of saying he would recommend such an approach to the county commissioners, citing the realities of the business model.

When asked whether the county could force existing conventional farmers using public open space to convert to organic, he replied, “At this point, that’s not a tool in our toolbox that the commissioners have given us yet. … It’s not that simple.”

“Could the commissioners say that?” Bell asks. “Yes. Would staff respond and do it? Yes.”

If the county commissioners did approve such a policy, Bell says, some of the current conventional farmers might not go along with the change and relocate to another county, so the open space would have to be ready with an organic farmer ready to take over to ensure that the land isn’t lost to noxious weeds.

“If we say ‘You have to,’ and our large-farm guys say, ‘You know what, we’ll go to Weld County,” do we have people ready to step in?” he asks.

And the success rate for organic farms is not as high as it is for conventional; Bell ticks off examples of organic farmers who have tried and failed on open space lands.

In addition, he says, requiring a farmer to sell something locally may not be a sound business practice. Bell used the example of how different parts of a cow are sold in different locations because markets vary — for example, a farmer would rather get $7 per pound for cow tongue in Asia than $1 per pound locally. The concept of forcing farmers on county open space to go organic feels a bit heavy-handed, he says, and raises questions about the extent to which government should be imposing its will on the private sector.

The county already gives preference to organic farms when leases are renewed, Bell notes, and helps fund infrastructure improvements on county-owned farm land.

“You’re talking about bringing in the stick, I’m talking about bringing in carrots and sticks,” he says.

Bell also points to already existing loops in which crops grown in Boulder County are sold to a local company and returned to the community, like the farmer who raises corn on open space for cows at nearby Mile Hi Dairy, which provides milk to Royal Crest Dairy in Longmont. In turn, Mile Hi provides the farmer with manure from the cows to fertilize for the next round of corn.

Bell acknowledges that the funding for his position and department rely in large part on having a steady revenue stream coming from the farmers leasing county open space, and he admits that he has relationships with the farmers currently using county open space, but he denies feeling beholden to them.

“Is it my job to keep them happy?” he asks. “No, but we want to help them stay in business.”

* * * *

Radi, the senior vice president of sales and marketing for Rudi’s, agrees with VonBreck that moving toward Meter’s model makes sense.

“We all are highly supportive of the concept of converting Boulder County public land to growing organic agriculture,” he says. “It just seems like a perfect fit. It’s on the Boulder brand, it’s true to the Boulder community’s values, it’s true to a lot of the companies’ values that are in this space, so at the highest level it’s a fantastic idea. Second of all, it’s a complex thing to pull together. It’s a doable solution, but it’s going to take some work.”

Radi says it’s going to take a group effort with all parties involved to make it a reality, to create the missing connections between the agricultural community and the organic industry. It can’t be done piecemeal.

“This idea of organic open space has to be about scale,” he says. “It can’t be about me going and carving out 20 acres of somebody’s corner plot and turning it into organic. This needs to be a broad-based solution that the county decides, philosophically, that we want to be known for organic and agricultural responsibility, and not putting chemicals into our groundwater, our land. We want to do it the right way. Everyone’s got to come to the table to make it work.”

And for that to happen, it may require some prodding from the county commissioners. “Philosophically, everybody nods their head, but when it’s time to do the hard work, everybody’s sort of like, ‘Hey, I’ve got my own set of issues,’” Radi says. “And that’s where you need the county. We need a mandate.”

When asked whether the commissioners need to step up and provide that mandate, Radi replied, “I think that’s got to be part of it. At some point in time, we need to make the decision, and that decision probably needs to be written into policy.”

When asked about the details that Bell says he and the farmers are not getting from the organic companies, Radi says both sides need to sit down and work the numbers, but when it comes to quantity, “you couldn’t grow enough wheat for me. We’re buying millions of pounds a week, off of thousands and thousands of acres.”

“I think all the pieces are there,” he continues. “What we haven’t done is decide that we’re going to be in a room together working on a macro solution, and that, to me, is the most critical next step. The devil’s in the details, and everybody’s nervous about the details.”

Similarly, Sonja Tuitele, director of communications for Aurora Organic Dairy, says that if there were more organic alfalfa or corn silage being grown on county open space, “we would buy it all.”

Tuitele says the dairy can only buy organic feed for its cows, but the company would work with farmers during the transition, like giving them organic compost and helping with paperwork.

She says Aurora board member Mark Retzloff of Alfalfa’s has been involved in past discussions with Bell about the transition to locally purchased organic crops on county open space.

While Tuitele was hesitant to provide details about how much each of their 8,000 milking cows eats and the cost of feed, she says the company would be eager to work with Bell to provide the details he needs for the farmers.

“If David Bell wants to reach out, we’d be happy to provide him with more information,” she says. “If there were more local organic feed sources, we would definitely be interested.”

* * * *

Former County Commissioner Will Toor says that while he doesn’t recall the Meter report, he has seen similar studies recommending the same approach: moving toward a more self-sustaining food system, for various reason, including economic.

“Everybody’s supportive of moving in that direction, but there are a number of challenges,” he says, citing water availability, soil composition and competition with existing farmers. “So I just think there’s some real complexity there.”

But when asked about the general goal of increasing organic production and keeping more of it local, Toor says there is consensus, as evidenced by the county’s new cropland policy, which contains a goal of making 20 percent of the county’s cropland organic.

“Conceptually, folks are on board with that,” he says. “Everybody’s pretty much on board with growing more food locally. … It would have real economic value.”

But Toor stopped short of recommending the passage of an immediate mandate, saying it would damage existing farmers.

“I don’t think you can say, starting tomorrow, the only thing you can grow is organic, and sold locally,” he says.

New County Commissioner Elise Jones, who replaced Toor in January, agrees with the overall goal as well, saying that many studies have outlined the economic and other benefits of consuming locally grown food. She notes that a Transition Colorado study found that a 25 percent food shift toward local eating could generate 1,900 new jobs.

Like Toor, she says an immediate mandate that the county shift open space to organic farming and local use could be “a brick wall that’s not going to be helpful to anybody.”

But she insists that despite challenges like water availability, all three county commissioners have made it a top priority — probably more than any past board — and agree that “this is what we want to do. We’re trying to push the envelope and encourage county staff to do this as fast as we can.”

However, Jones adds, the county needs to be realistic.

“It is going to take some time,” she says.

* * * *

But some question why it is unrealistic for the county to quickly find a farmer willing to grow what local buyers have already agreed to purchase, thereby moving at least some current GMO commodity crops being grown on open space to non- GMO crops. Has the county made this a priority and found this matchmaking to be impossible? Has the county put out call after call for farmers willing to produce what buyers have already said they would purchase, only to get no response? Has the county been holding weekly, monthly, annual meetings to find a way to generate millions of additional dollars for the local economy by getting someone to grow what local organic companies want to buy? Has the county been holding regular meetings for the entire organic industry in Boulder County to find out exactly how much and what food the industry would be willing and able to buy locally? The answer to these questions appears to be no, and until that changes, progress will be as county officials claim — very slow to non-existent.

Unfortunately, it appears that unless someone steps forward to take on a leadership role in building a local food system, a system capable of creating an economic boom for the county’s economy, next year will most likely look like last year, and the year before that, and so on. Some say this is what being “realistic” means when it comes to expectations of our local bureaucracies. One would suspect that a business given the same opportunity as the county, to generate millions of additional dollars by shifting what it makes to fit the needs of large local buyers, would find it substantially less time-consuming to adjust its business practices.

Despite Rudi’s commitment to buy all the wheat we can grow on our public lands, and Aurora Organic Dairy saying it would take all the organic alfalfa and corn silage that county open space could produce — legitimate offers that would deliver millions of dollars in new additional revenue into the county’s economy — it appears that moving towards a sustainable food system has to date not been a high enough priority to get all the players to the table to get it done.

And so it is that the twist to this spring’s GMO debate, the question regarding county government’s continued support for growing GMO crops on public lands, will continue to be asked. Is it the county government’s fiduciary duty to taxpayers, the actual owners of these open space lands, to manage the open space farms in such a way that maximizes the environmental and economic value for all county residents and the overall county economy?

And if that is the case, and considering the many millions in lost local revenue that our current non-local food system is causing, shouldn’t it be time for our commissioners to mandate change and start holding regular meetings with all the potential buyers and sellers?

It is time to think outside the box that county government has locked itself into for the past decade. For instance, Boulder County has 27 craft beer brewers, and some are among the largest and most successful in the nation. Has anyone pulled those businesses together to find out if they would be willing to buy hops grown on open space lands? If not, why not? This is the kind of leadership that this important issue is lacking. All involved seem to agree that this is a complex issue with numerous moving parts, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be accomplished in a reasonable timeframe if enough effort, resources and business acumen are applied.

With willing buyers such as Rudi’s and Aurora, the time to take that first baby step toward creating an environmentally friendly and economically superior local food system appears to be at hand.

Ken Meter agrees, and also says he feels a sense of urgency. “We currently have demand for local food,” he says. “People want to know who is producing their food and how it has been grown. They want that connection. If we don’t meet that demand now, it could go away in the future.”




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