July 3, 2009

GMO Beets on Boulder, Colorado Open Space, anyone?

GMO Sugar Beets on Boulder County Open Space

via Jonathan Rademaekers
[email protected]

Living in Boulder, Colorado, the so-called “cradle of green,” it surprised me to no end when I learned from a colleague that we were considering allowing genetically-modified (GMO) Monsanto Round-Up Ready™ sugar beets to be cultivated on our public Open Space, and that there was to be a public hearing on the matter. Surely there must be a mass uprising in the works, surely all manner of “greenies” would emerge and march against such heresy.  This is liberal Boulder, after all, and everyone thinks that Monsanto is the devil and GMO seeds its evil spawn.

Well, attending the hearing was enlightening, to say the least.

The May 28th meeting was just a “fact finding mission.” No decisions were to be made, it was simply intended to inform the Boulder County Open Space about both sides of the issue and help inform a future decision (see links at the end for details on the future process). The meeting included members of the Boulder County community that I don’t come into contact with very often. Namely our farmers, but not the variety that stand behind their local, organic produce at the farmer’s market.

These were the large-scale farmers. Family farmers still, and many had been so longer than the farmer’s market variety, but these farmers grew their wares on thousands of acres and sold their goods to larger distributers and processors. Also present were representatives of the conventional farming industry, a selection of agricultural “experts” from various universities, and some Boulderites poised to voice their opposition.

The farmers in the room weren’t from big companies or land barons…they were local, often struggling, workers of the land that were looking for any leg up in a tough line of work. One such farmer began his presentation by showing historical family photos. His family has been growing sugar beets in Boulder County for three generations and was planting its 100th sugar beet crop. The photos clearly demonstrated the back-breaking labor that was required of old style sugar beet cultivation. I imagine that their family celebrated every agricultural advancement that had allowed them to save labor and time. It was an interesting and empathy-inducing look into the life of a modern farmer. I asked myself as I listened to his presentation if, during the agricultural revolution and the advent of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and other modern efficiencies, the farmers of the time even have the economic option to forgo these new developments. Could they have survive as traditional farmers before there was even a market for organic produce when all their competitors experienced enhanced yields and lower overheads? I guessed not. I imagine that period must have felt like a miracle to those that been pulling weeds or loosing crops to pests.

[Still, advancements in farming technology and using GMOs are not synonomous. It’s possible, in other words, to farm organically using modern methods. ~ ed.]

Other presenters stepped up to provide some context for the future decision. A Boulder County Open space representative detailed the status quo. It turns out Boulder’s admirable respect for open space has manifested in a variety of ways.  In addition to the many trails and multi-use areas that abound, there are also thousands of acres that are leased to farmers. These plots are located east of Boulder, out amongst the farms and away from recreating people, so farming them seems to make sense, and so farmed they are… conventionally and, according to the county’s GMO protocols, with GMO corn.

“Conventional” is a bad word among greenies. Related to farming practices it refers to the modern, chemical dependent methods of cultivation. The farms that are cultivating Boulder County public land often use conventional methods.  In hearing, the third generation farmer wanting permission to grow Round-Up Ready sugar beets on the public land he was leasing gave a little show-and-tell on the chemicals he currently uses to grow his conventional, non-GMO beets. It turns out that weeds are a huge issue when growing a large field of sugar beets.  The little beet plants get totally out-competed by the vigorous, prolific weeds.  So a farmer has to use an herbicidal stew to keep all the weed varieties in control. He has to be careful however or he’ll kill or weaken the beets, which conventionally grow to only 80-90% of their potential, and sometime much less, due to herbicidal damage.  The variety of herbicides this farmer uses on the public land he leases is startling, and their names sound like the front line of a Transformers battalion: you’ve got your Gramoxone Extra for early pre-emergent application, your Nortron or Ro-Neet or Betamix in spring or fall, the Stinger for Canadian Thistle Control, Assure for grasses and the Eptam as your Lay-By herbicide.  All these require tractor pass after tractor pass and at the end of it all, there are still weeds that need to get removed by expensive hand labor.

With Round-Up Ready sugar beets, all you supposedly need is one chemical, Round-Up (glyphosate), applied less frequently with fewer tractor passes and with more lenient timing so as to require less hand labor.  This results in a better product, for cheaper, with a lower carbon footprint using fewer chemicals. What’s the catch?  Oh yeah, it’s a GMO crop.  It is a genetically modified plant that has been invented by the agricultural company Monsanto to be resistant to its herbicide Round-Up.  These beets can thrive through the application of a glyphosate herbicide (whether its Monsanto’s Round-Up or not actually, although non-Round-Up use voids the seed’s warranty), while all other plants around them die.  This is beneficial in many ways including the fact that you can apply the herbicide later in the season, when everything is bigger, and the weeds can be used for the benefits they provide such as fostering bio-diversity in the field… until they become too competitive with the beets and are then annihilated with an application of Round-Up.  The yields will be large because you have removed the factor of the herbicide damage which reduces yields by 20% or more, and profits will be bigger by weight because you use less chemicals, gas and man power.  It’s amazing really… if it’s all true.

Again, the only problem is that they are GMO crops and that they carry a stigma, an uncertainty and a certain Franken-food fear-inducing quality.  These feelings may be justified.  There is an increasing body of evidence suggesting that GMO foods might really pose a health risk to consumers.  Recently, The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) issued a call for an immediate moratorium on Genetically Manipulated Foods citing some animal studies which suggest mutagenic and other undesirable effects in not only the plants themselves but in those consuming them.  They called for more time to be able to study the long-term effects of these crops.

Additionally, GMO crops are criticized for the danger they pose to contaminating non-GMO gene pools.

There have been documented accounts of GMO corn spreading its genes into neighboring fields and growing where it shouldn’t.  Monsanto even famously sued some farmers for growing their crop without purchasing it after it arrived uninvited onto their land.  Understandably, the danger of gene pool contamination also has the organic farming community up in arms.  Their carefully cultivated crops would be ineligible for organic certification if they were found to be contaminated with GMO genes.

There is also the danger of weeds developing a resistance to the herbicide Round-Up. This has already happened in the southeastern US.  If the herbicide Round-Up is used too often, resistance in weeds develops and these new “super weeds” render the whole product package less effective. Then it’s back to calling on the Transformers to fight these new, even stronger the mutant plants and it is just like old conventional practices again, but this time Monsanto is supplying all the seeds.

Finally, there is the matter of being dependent on Monsanto for both the seeds and herbicide, leaving farmers overly vulnerable to Monsanto’s greed swings.  Perhaps it is not surprising that some Round-Up ready soy farmers have been getting upset with Monsanto because the price of seeds rose from $35 to $50 a bag and Round-Up went from $15 to $50 a gallon. Once they’ve got you, they’ve got you.

Debates rage and discussions occur but meanwhile Monsanto’s GMO crops are taking over.   Over 50% of canola, 60-80% of corn, 92% of soy, and 95% of sugar beets grown in the US are now Round-Up Ready!  Amazingly, the Round-Up Ready sugar beets were only introduced in 2008.  So the 95% uptake has occurred over two seasons!  This scramble toward GMO crops has lead to many seed producers focusing so much on breeding the GMO seeds that they are phasing out the non-GMO seed varieties altogether.  Soon, there may no longer be a source for non-GMO sugar beets seeds.

Back in Boulder County, the farmers are petitioning to be able grow these crops on public land or they’ll be in real trouble.  Why?  Well it turns out farming is a tough business and there are several reasons.

Each farmer that grows sugar beets in the area is a member of a CO-OP that runs a sugar processing plant.  This plant needs to process a certain amount of sugar in order to remain solvent.   To ensure this, each farmer gets shares in the CO-OP, with each share representing one acre of sugar beets.  If a farmer has 1000 shares he must bring in 1000 acres of sugar beets to be processed, no less.  If he fails to meet the quota he gets fined about $350 per share he is short.  Additionally, sugar beets are a unique crop requiring unique machines for planting and harvest.  Each farmer is therefore bound to sugar beet production by both the COOP obligation and their capital investment.  If they don’t plant GMO seeds and non-GMO seeds become harder to get, they might find themselves out of business.

Here is a summary of the arguments made for GMO sugar beet production by the Boulder County farmers:

· If they grow non-GMO beets they will be at an economic disadvantage at best or out of business at worst.

· Regarding the threat of pollen spread and gene pool contamination:  Beets are biennial which means their life cycle takes two years.  The first year they grow the bulb and the second year they produce the flowers and pollen.  The beets are harvested at the end of the first year so there is less chance of pollen spreading.   Due to the natural occurrence of wonky genes however, a small percentage of all beets do flower the first year.  Monsanto, therefore, contractually obligates all Round-Up Ready growers to go into the fields every two weeks and to cull those plants. Whether this will practically occur is another matter.

· Regarding GMO ingredients in food:  Sugar beets make sugar.  The final product is so refined that at the end it is 99.7% sucrose and the last 0.03% is a little bit of moisture.  There is no protein matter or any other “contaminants” in the pure finished product.   This supposedly removes the risk of there being any GMO-ness in the sugar. (Just stay away from the non-organic molasses.  It is the leftovers from the sugar refining process and it will contain all the herbicide residue and any present GMO-ness).

· Regarding organic alternatives:  Current immigration policies and other factors have resulted in a shortage of manual labor.  A farmer described a trial with non-GMO beets where he decided to spend all the money he would normally spend on chemicals on laborers to weed the land instead.  The laborers walked out halfway through the season (why, I’m not sure) and the crop failed.  There are currently no organic growers of sugar beets and there have been some inconclusive trials. I find it “interesting” that intolerant immigration policy has made large-scale organic operations less viable due to labor shortages.

· Regarding the environment:  They say Round-Up is a relatively “benign” herbicide compared to some of the Agent Orange-like alternatives because it is not water-soluble and becomes inactive when it contacts the soil.  It also needs to be used lower quantities.  Other sources retort these assertions, however. Round-Up and the other glyphosate herbicides have in fact been shown to be harmful to the environment (duh!) and it has been documented that using the GMO crops does not in fact reduce herbicide use.  The technology allows you to spray glyphosate indiscriminately after all, with no harm to the crop. In addition, multiple studies have shown (see links at the bottom) that the emergence of super weeds lead to the eventual use of a wide variety of herbicides – again.

None of this really addresses the potential hazards GMO crops pose to humans, the supposed beneficiaries of these wonder crops.  As it stands it seems the final destination will have to be the adoption of efficient, modern, large-scale, organic agriculture.  In the short term GMOs might be better for the environment than calling on the Transformer battalion of poisons – that is until the super weeds evolve.  Anything has to be better than dumping those tons of toxins onto the earth.  Maybe GMOs are even healthier to consume than the more herbicide laden conventional foods?  Perhaps, but it would only be the lesser of two evils.  The rub is that we wont really know until it is too late as the health effects of consuming GMO crops are more likely to show up in the long term.

One day we will need to return to the basics of food production lest we face large-scale epidemics and other ecological and societal side effects that we cannot yet predict.  Perhaps it is a matter of downsizing the super farm and being willing to pay a little more for our food in order to support organic methods.  We as a society have to learn that cheap goods result in costs being deferred.  We think cheap is good and take it at face value but really the costs are being paid by the environment (ie. future generations and the poor) and by the health care system (and our bodies).  Whatever the solution, I know from my perspective that I do not envy the farmers of today, I worry about the safety of our food tomorrow and that I will continue to buy organic forever.

Jonathan is director of operations of the Boulder based company Big Tree Climate Fund, a provider of socially beneficial, forestry based carbon offsets and tree-planting programs.  He maintains a blog on their website, www.bigtreeclimatefund.com that discusses green issues in a manner that the average person can understand.

Click image above or links below for more information on Boulder County Open Space Sugar beet agendas: http://www.bouldercounty.org/openspace/Sugarbeets.htm


http://www.biotech-info.net/lessons_learned.pdf http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/briefing_notes/hrbcde_use_gm_cropsjan04.pdf http://www.non-gmoreport.com/articles/mar09/farmers_planting_non-gmo_soybeans.php

http://www.saynotogmos.org/beets.pdf http://www.uiweb.uidaho.edu/sugarbeet/weed/Herbicides%20for%20sugar%20beets.pdf

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