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GMO Debate Questions Meaning of Sustainable

Food and Agriculture Policy Council wrestles with competing claims, votes no on GMOs

by Laura Snider

BOULDER, Colo. - Matt Pierce has a day job. But at night and on the weekends, the 27-year-old is trying to make it as a farmer, cultivating 1,200 acres.

Balthazar Ely picks black beans Friday at Black Cat Farm, which grows organic produce on land leased from Boulder County’s open space department. The debate over genetically modified sugar beets has led many to ask that the county encourage more organic farming on open space, but county leaders say the transition can’t happen overnight. (Photo by Mark Leffingwell) And when he's not at work -- or in the fields -- he's volunteering his time as a member of Boulder County's Food and Agriculture Policy Council, which voted early Friday, after seven hours of public testimony and deliberation, to recommend against allowing genetically modified sugar beets to be grown on open space land.

The decision, which nearly every council member described as excruciating, was not what Pierce had hoped for.

"I do farm, and I don't raise sugar beets," Pierce said. "And I don't know what to say except to say it: I don't believe that everybody has the right to take the tool away from the farmers. It's hard enough to make a living at this."

"I'm 27 and I'm trying to farm, and I don't know; I don't think it's going to work," he continued. "I think that people need to get educated as far as farming and how it works."

Pierce was only joined by two other members of the 13-person volunteer council in his vote to allow genetically modified sugar beets.

But the entire council -- regardless of how each member voted -- seemed to struggle with the dilemma of how to balance the economic well-being of farmers like Pierce with the community's desire to see publicly owned land farmed in a more sustainable way.

For many speakers at this week's meeting, which started at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, that means saying no to GMOs and investing in more organic farming. They worry that genetically modified food is unsafe, and that no one can guarantee that the plant's pollen wouldn't drift, contaminating conventional and organic crops nearby.

But if the recent debate over genetically modified sugar beets in Boulder County has made anything clear, it may be that the definition of "sustainable agriculture" isn't clear at all.

A challenging balance

County commissioners have said that sustainability is a priority in all aspects of its governance, and its working definition says that sustainability requires "balancing a strong economy, protection of the environment, and social equity in order to achieve an improved quality of life for ourselves and future generations."

The open space department says it's trying to use that model -- often called the three-legged stool -- to look at economic, environmental and social implications of its decisions. But with the sugar beet question, it's not always obvious which decision will make the stool strongest.

For example, the six farmers who asked the county for permission in December to grow Roundup Ready sugar beets -- which have been modified to resist the herbicide Roundup -- argue that they need the new crop to remain competitive, since the modified seeds increase their yield while decreasing the costs of herbicides and labor.

"I manage approximately 1,100 acres of Boulder County Open Space," said Famuer Rasmussen Jr., one of the six farmers asking to use GMO beets. "Of that 1,100 acres, 14 percent are used for sugar beets. Those sugar beets contribute to 32 percent of my income. There just isn't another viable crop out there that's a viable economic substitute. By removing Roundup Ready sugar beets, you have essentially delivered the death blow to another independent farmer."

Boulder's organic farmers, however, vigorously disagree, saying that organic can be just as profitable -- it just requires the farmers to try something new. Additionally, sugar beet opponents have argued that allowing GMO crops on county land has economic implications that reach far beyond the farmers, since the county's green image would be damaged, and in turn, the local, multi-billion-dollar natural and organic products industry would take a hit.

"The Boulder region is a hotbed for organic farming and leading organic businesses," wrote Steve Hoffman, managing director of the Boulder-based Organic Center, in a letter opposing the beets. "And if any farming is to be encouraged on publicly owned open space, organic agriculture surely ought to be considered for the truly environmentally friendly farming system that it is -- saving energy inputs and costs, tying up more carbon in healthy organic soils, promoting biodiversity, and further contributing to Boulder's healthy brand image."

Organic hurdles

Ron Stewart, director of county open space land, said the department is trying to encourage more organic farming on open space. His staff has set a goal of having 10 percent of its farmland in organic production by 2012; the department offers an array of financial incentives for organic farmers willing to lease from the county; and a new initiative has been designed to encourage community growers' associations to cooperatively farm county land.

But the transition to organic can't happen overnight, he said. And some members of the Food and Agriculture Policy Council, which was formed last year to support local agriculture, agreed.

Councilwoman Shanan Olson, who runs Abbondanza Organic Seeds and Produce in Longmont, said the necessary structure for supporting large-scale organic operations -- the kind needed to replace the thousands of acres of conventional farming in the county -- isn't yet developed.

"(The Front Range) is sending their organic foods to Texas," said Olson, who still voted against GMO beets. "We're not eating it all yet, and we haven't figured out how to get it to the hungry people. We simply haven't put our heads together to figure it out."

Dan Matsch, who worked as an organic farmer before taking his current job at EcoCycle, didn't vote with Olson, but he had similar thoughts.

"There is no knowledge in the county currently of how to farm 1,000 acres organically; it's not there," he said. "We don't know how to do it. There's a huge difference between farming 1,000 acres organically than 30 acres."

Many of the organic farms in Boulder County check in at just 35 acres or smaller.

"The devil we know"

Matsch, who supports building the structure to make large-scale organic farms possible, had other reasons for voting yes on the GMO issue.

"The conventional method of sugar beets scares me a lot more than the GMOs," he said.

Matsch, who works with compost programs at EcoCycle, said some of the herbicides traditionally used in sugar beet production are so potent that they don't break down in compost, making the finished product infertile. By comparison, Roundup, which is available to the public at hardware stores, is relatively benign, breaking down quickly in the soil.

Roundup Ready sugar beets also allow farmers to use no-till techniques, where the chaff from the previous year's crops is left on the field, fertilizing the soil and preventing erosion. With conventional sugar beets, farmers have to thoroughly turn the land to fight off the weeds, making many more passes with their gas-burning tractors and exposing the soil to erosion.

"There are a lot of reasons to go the GMO route if you care about the environment," said Councilwoman Sandy Cruz. "What that shows, really, is that there are such severe problems with conventional agricultural practices that it almost makes GMOs look good."

But not good enough for Cruz.

Despite those few environmental benefits, and the farmers' claims that they can use less pesticide overall with Roundup Ready beets, Cruz voted against allowing them. She said the science on GMOs was incomplete, and if they're allowed on open space land, the county may regret it in the future.

"Farmers have gotten a lot of bad agricultural advice from the experts (in the past)," she said. "Russian olive, tamarisk and eucalyptus were highly recommended plants. I think that the consequences of GMOs are unclear, and perhaps the devil we know is better than the devil we don't know."

The people's land

Despite the glut of competing claims about what's best economically and environmentally -- not to mention scientifically or morally -- many of the members of the council put aside their own conflicted feelings and, instead, rested their final decision on something that was more black and white.

After listening to 47 out of 58 speakers express adamant opposition to GMOs at Thursday's public meeting, the council considered who actually owned the land.

"I don't want the good food movement to start by losing our farmers," said Cindy Torres, who chairs the council.

"But this is Boulder County open space. And the taxpayers have paid for it. And despite how disconnected the public may seem form agriculture, they own the land. They pay for the programs. The pay for the opportunities. And if the parks and open space or the county commissioners or the farmers don't like how the public is voting, then we have a long road ahead of us."

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