The County Commissioners’ March 17 decision to ban GMOs from Boulder County open space was rigged. Commissioners Elise Jones and Deb Gardner had their minds made up months before the actual decision.
If there is any doubt on this point, consider their attempt to suppress a county-sponsored study of comparative agricultural practices in Boulder County when it didn’t come out to their liking.
The study, titled “Economic, Environmental, and Social implications of cropping systems in Boulder County,” was prepared by Boulder County’s Parks and Open Space Department and the CSU Extension. Farmers fighting the GMO ban call it the White Paper. The study ended up showing that agricultural practices based on GMO crops:
1) Used fewer and less toxic pesticides than conventionally grown crops, 2) Used less diesel fuel than either conventionally grown or organic crops, 3) Saved a substantial amount of water compared to either conventional or organically grown crops, 4) Were much less disruptive of the soil than either conventionally or organically grown crops, and 5) Had a much lower carbon footprint than conventional or organic farming.
Faced with these findings, Jones and Gardner attempted to suppress the study, claiming it was just a working draft. That prompted the farmers who were targeted by the GMO ban to file a Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) action, which eventually resulted in the study becoming public.
Corn and sugar beets, the main crops that will be banished from Boulder County Open Space if Jones and Gardner get their way, have been genetically engineered to have three traits: resistance to the herbicide Glyphosate (aka Roundup), inclusion of a trait from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that kills corn rootworms and other insect pests, and, more recently, inclusion of a trait from the ubiquitous bacterium Bacillus subtilis that imparts drought resistance.
Together, the Roundup Ready and Bt traits have resulted in an enormous drop in the use of pesticides globally; the original motive for producing genetically engineered varieties was pesticide reduction. And the Roundup Ready trait has made possible the use of strip-till farming practices, which are having a revolutionary impact on farming.
Farmers plough fields primarily for weed control. Both conventional and organic farming practices require ploughing, which consumes large amounts of diesel fuel and allows substantial amounts of both water and carbon dioxide to escape from the soil. Strip till practices involve leaving the residue from the previous year’s crop in place and ploughing just narrow strips in which the seeds are planted and immediately sprayed with Roundup (one quart per acre). The Roundup and the crop residue left in place keep the weeds down until the crop has emerged and formed a canopy.
With this in mind, here are some of the findings Jones and Gardner didn’t want made public before they voted to screw the farmers last March, and chances are still prefer to ignore:
•The diesel fuel burned in conventional corn farming in Boulder County produces 180-316 pounds of CO2 per acre. Organic corn farming produces 134-290 pounds CO2 per acre. The figures for strip tillage with Roundup Ready corn are 51-181 pounds CO2 per acre — up to two-thirds less.
•The water loss from conventional and organic tillage practices comes to 2.25 inches per acre for conventional and 2.59 inches for organic. The water loss from Roundup Ready enabled strip tillage is 0.24 inch per acre — less than a tenth as much as organic.
•The act of ploughing up a field releases much more CO2 from the soil than is released from the tractor. Conventional and organic practices release 3,021 and 3,151 pounds per acre respectively. The figure for Roundup enabled strip tillage is 474 pounds per acre — or less than a sixth as much.
• Using a measure of aggregate pesticide toxicity called the Environmental Index Quotient developed by Cornell University, the study found that the alternative stew of pesticides that farmers will have to use if they can’t plant genetically engineered corn is over 500 percent more toxic than if they use Roundup Ready/Bt varieties. For sugar beets, the other crop hit by the ban, the figure is 1,100 percent more toxic. This finding is particularly damning since Commissioner Gardner said her vote against GMO crops was not a vote again GMOs per se, but a vote against the use of Glyphosate, which is much less toxic than the alternatives that will have to be used instead.
Similar advantages were found for genetically engineered sugar beets over beets grown with conventional practices. (No one grows organic sugar beets.)
Jones and Gardner claim they want to ban GMOs in the name of making farming on Boulder County Open Space more “sustainable.” But the county’s own study makes a mockery of the claim. The study showed that GMO cropping practices were much more sustainable than either conventional agricultural practices using non-GMO crops or, in most respects, than organic practices.
In trying to ban genetically engineered crops from County open space, Jones and Gardner may be shilling for the local natural food barons or pandering to the local food cranks who eat at the American table but won’t stop complaining about the food, but the one thing they are not being is “sustainable.” Or rational.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.