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Decision on Genetically Modified Beets Likely to Be Delayed

by John Fryar

BOULDER - Boulder County commissioners appeared late Tuesday night to be headed toward at least a one- or two-year delay in deciding whether genetically modified sugar beets can ever be grown on county-owned farm land.

People pack an overflow room at the Boulder County Courthouse on Tuesday night as the Boulder County Commissioners take up the issue of six farmers who petitioned to grow genetically modified sugar beets on county-owned land. (Joshua Buck/Times-Call) The six farmers who last December requested permission to plant genetically engineered sugar beets on land they lease from Boulder County more recently have asked that the commissioners postpone action on that application - a delay now supported by the county staff, which originally had recommended approval of the farmers' modified-beet proposal.

And while the commissioners' Tuesday night meeting on the issue was still under way at press time, county board chairman Ben Pearlman noted the farmers' request for a delayed decision, which Pearlman said would "allow us to do a deeper discussion" on the future management of county-owned agricultural land, including whether tenant farmers should be allowed to raise any genetically modified crops on that land.

Meanwhile, Pearlman told the dozens of people who'd signed up for Tuesday's public hearing that the commissioners would like those Boulder County residents' views about what those further county studies and planning "should look like."

Last Thursday, the six farmers who had originally asked for permission to grow genetically modified sugar beets on county-owned land wrote the commissioners that they'd still "like to have the opportunity to grow Roundup Ready sugar beets, like other sugar beet growers in the United States and Canada."

The farmers noted, however, that their 8-month-old application "has turned into a broader emotional debate that has deeply divided our community." They wrote county commissioners that "we respectfully ask that you delay any decision on the petition, to allow the community time to find ways for our farming operations to coexist as they have for many years before."

Jules Van Thuyne Jr., one of the farmers who's applied for county permission to grow the sugar beets engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup, noted during Tuesday's hearing that he'd been a member of a previous advisory county panel that earlier this decade recommended Boulder County's current 6-year-old protocols and conditions for growing genetically modified corn on county land.

But the debates that have erupted over the proposal to plant genetically engineered sugar beets have wound up pitting organic farming enthusiasts against conventional farmers who want to plant some modified crops, Van Thuyne said, and "this was never our intent."

A number of speakers at Tuesday's hearing expressed support for granting the farmers' original sugar beets proposal. But Van Thuyne said the debates have become so emotionally charged that "delay is appropriate."

Also among the more than 100 people who showed up for the commissioners' courthouse hearing were numerous opponents of allowing any modified crops on county open space.

"Please understand, we are not here to condemn the advancement of science," said Longmont-area resident Steve Demos. But he warned that genetically modified crops aren't as heavily regulated as the biomedicine that's been shown to benefit humans, and he said it's "totally inappropriate" to put genetically modified organisms into the food chain.

Demos questioned the economic benefits and environmental-safety claims advanced by genetically modified organism advocates. And he questioned whether allowing such crops to be grown in Boulder County is "consistent with our community values."

Adam Gorove of Boulder cautioned that food from genetically modified plants "could provide significant health risks" to humans, including the presence of allergens and toxins.

But Amber Clay of Erie, speaking on behalf of the Boulder County Farm Bureau, said genetically modified organisms "have gotten a bad rap" and that crops such as Roundup Ready sugar beets are "highly regulated."

Clay expressed support for the local farmers applying for county permission to grow those sugar beets, saying they "are good people. They are hard-working people." Clay said several of those families had sold some of the land in question to the county with the understanding that they'd be allowed to continue to farm it.

Another speaker at the hearing, Aurora Organic Dairy co-founder Mark
Retzloff, said that company would be willing to help the six farmers who have proposed producing the modified sugar beets on about 900 or so acres of county-owned property north and southeast of Longmont, with a transition into producing organic crops on that land.

Once the land is certified as organic, a three-year process, Aurora Organic would then be willing to sign long-term contracts to buy organic alfalfa hay and silage from those farmers as feed for the company's dairy cattle, Retzloff said.

"We would like to see Boulder make a strong commitment toward organic agriculture," Retzloff said. He said that in the meantime, as far as genetically modified organisms, Boulder County taxpayers' and voters' open space shouldn't "be used as a Petrie dish for human experimentation."

One of the issues that could be considered during a management-policy study of the county's agricultural lands might be to work on ways to help large-scale farms move to organic farming, as well as to work on broader policies.

Boulder County's Parks and Open Space Department staff already was scheduled to develop such a management policy in 2011, but Tina Nielsen, the staffer who's been coordinating work on addressing the modified sugar-beet issues, suggested that timetable could be moved up if the county commissioners make it a priority.

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