January 19, 2012

GMOs in Boulder Open Space: Not as Black & White as We Thought. ~ Will Toor

Striking Photography by Bo

*Other articles on this topic: Boulder vs GMOs, Say No to GMOs in Boulder Open Space!Hurrah! Boulder County Commissioners Will Toor, Ben Pearlman, Cindy Domenico bravely flout commonsense, vote for GMOs.


The debate about the county cropland policy, and particularly about what policy the county should have regarding GMOs, has been fascinating and difficult.

Any decision we made would have real world impacts – on the farmers, on the land, and on the open space program. I felt an obligation to really understand the issues.

On one level, this meant doing a lot of reading to try to get at least an overview of what we know about GMO crops — i.e., health impacts, the negative environmental impacts, the benefits to farmers and the benefits to the environment. I also wanted to meet both conventional and organic farmers and try to understand their perspectives.

I have become convinced that the issues are more complex, and far less black and white than they are often portrayed.

Boulder County is in a rather unique situation. We have had 30 years of public policy aimed at preventing urban sprawl, directing development into the towns, preserving natural habitats and preserving farm and ranch land. While some of this land is purely privately owned, there is a significant amount of publicly owned farmland, with the City of Boulder and Boulder County as the two biggest landowners.

Boulder County has approximately 12,000 acres of irrigated cropland which is held in fee, on which the county makes the decisions about what type of agriculture takes place. Most of this land has been farmed for a long time, often by the same families whose ancestors homesteaded here 100 years ago. The county does not farm land itself, but instead, leases the land out to farmers. The revenues from the leases are reinvested in the open space agricultural land in the form of irrigation improvements, hay barns and other improvements.

Successful management of open space agricultural lands requires a partnership between the county and the farmers.

Farming is a difficult and complicated business, which requires hard work, knowledge and investment. We need to work with the farmers who bring these resources to the table, and give them economically viable options in order to successfully farm the land. We also should be actively working on nurturing new farmers, and helping small farmers grow their operations to larger scales, so that we will continue to have a viable farming community into the future.

One exciting development has been the recent explosion of interest in the local food movement. I think there is real value in people having a connection to the farmers and farms where their food is grown. There is also some real potential for local jobs in an expanded local food system.

My family has been a member of local CSAs for nearly 15 years, and our home has been a drop-off location for the Monroe Organic Farm CSA for the last decade. This has been a very important connection, especially for my children, and one that I think is important to a lot of other people.

The County appointed a Food and Agriculture Policy Council a few years ago with the explicit direction to help us figure out how to support local food production with the focus on how to improve the connection between farmers and local market opportunities.

Bryan Guarente

Boulder County is a major supporter of the farmers’ market, providing a home for the Longmont market on the county fairgrounds, and has also recently made significant investments in improving that location for the benefit of the market.

The County conducts a new farmer training program to help folks who are interested in becoming farmers – typically small acreage, often organic, market farms.

In order to encourage the development of  small farms, we have also developed a “Grower’s Association” program. This program makes it possible for farmers to lease a small acreage with water from the county for very low prices.

In addition, we have organic incentives in the bidding process for larger acreage farms in order to encourage farmers to transition to organic. Leased acreage for organic production has continued to grow steadily. For example, we have gone from 200 acres a few years ago to 1,600 acres just in the last few years. This brings us to about 10 percent of our irrigated cropland (compared to a national average of approximately 0.7 percent).

I believe that we should continue to expand the amount of organic farming on county open space.

The cropland policy sets a goal of doubling the acreage in the next few years – 20 percent by 2020, coupled with efforts to assure that there are appropriate markets and continuing expanse.

However, the large majority of acres are still farmed conventionally and even with an aggressive policy push towards more organic production, a substantial percentage of farmland will remain conventional for years to come.

Clearly, the most contentious issue in this process has been the debate about genetically modified food crops.

I have tried to look at this in as fair and neutral of a way as possible. I have read materials submitted by both opponents and proponents of GMOs, and have met with many supporters and opponents. There have been multiple public hearings before advisory groups, and a marathon hearing before the board of county commissioners. I have also spent a substantial amount of time on outside reading of the literature in order to try to understand what the overall state of the science is around GMO food crops. Some of the major sources I have looked at:

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) synthesis report

Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century, from the National Academy of Sciences

Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects, from the National Academy of Sciences

Modern Food Biotechnology, Human Health and Development: an Evidence-based Study, by the World Health Organization

Genetically Modified Crops for Food Use and Human health – an Update, Royal Academy of Sciences

Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years”, by Charles Benbrook for the Organic Center (biotech opponents)

Impact of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use: US Organic Center report evaluation by PG Economics (biotech advocates)

Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops, report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (biotech opponents)

One thing that was quite striking was the extent to which the major independent scientific bodies come to basically the same set of conclusions, which do not totally align either with the GMO boosterism of the biotech industry, or the very negative analysis of some GMO critics.

After looking at all of this material, I have arrived at somewhat of a middle ground in terms of my views on GMO crops.

1.      I am not convinced by the opposition to GMO crops based on food safety concerns. While there are food safety risks associated with any new food crops, whether created by conventional breeding or genetic engineering, these risks seem fairly low compared to other food safety risks. The risks associated with genetically modified foods are not likely to be higher than those associated with a variety of types of conventional breeding. Unlike conventional breeding, there is at least some assessment of potential food safety risks associated with GMO crops. However, this is an arena where further research should be conducted and the federal regulatory process should be strengthened.

2.      I believe that consumer choice is important. Whether or not GMO food crops are dangerous, there are clearly a large number of people who believe that they are dangerous, or who have a belief that they are an unacceptable alteration of natural processes. These people should have the ability to choose not to eat GMO products. Because of this, I support labeling. The County has formally adopted a call for GMO labeling into our legislative agenda.

3.     I do find the argument compelling that there has been too much of a focus on GMO agriculture, and that sustainably feeding a growing world requires a much broader focus. Improved seeds are one important part of the picture, but there are a whole lot of other important pieces around agroecological practices such as, managing for healthy soil, etc.

4.      I do think there have been some major public health benefits associated with Bt crops. In particular, the evidence seems pretty strong that Bt cotton has, at least for a period of time, dramatically reduced exposure of farmworkers in India and China to some very toxic pesticides.

5.      Bt crop management seems to be better thought out than management of roundup ready crops. There has at least been thought put into resistance management with the requirements for 20 percent of cornfields to be planted as refuges of non Bt corn in order to achieve cross breeding between resistant and non-resistant insects. Despite the emergence of resistant rootworms in some places, this seems to have been a successful resistance management strategy for European corn borer, which is the main corn pest of interest in this area. And since organic farmers in this area use Bt to control other pests on other crops, there is not really an issue with selection of Bt resistant insects affecting organic farmers.

6.      Roundup Ready crop management seems to be very poorly thought out, with no restrictions in place to limit continuous use of roundup ready crops on the same ground year after year – essentially guaranteeing the rapid evolution of roundup resistant weeds. This has led to the phenomenon Charles Benbrook describes, where farmers who use these crops continually get a reduction in herbicide use initially, but then have increasing use over time and start having to turn back to other, more toxic herbicides.

It also seems that there are a variety of unknown risks that come from making such large-scale, continuous use of one herbicide, even one as nontoxic as glyphosate. There are also some ecological surprises that emerge. For example, research out of the University of Iowa suggests that there may be a significant negative impact on monarchs – not from any toxicity, but due to the simple fact that roundup is so effective at weed control that farmers have successfully eliminated the little bits of milkweed that were surviving in their fields.

7.      This part of the country has largely escaped the issues associated with roundup ready crops, since farmers in this area typically engage in vigorous crop rotation, involving corn, sugar beets, alfalfa, barley and wheat. This means we do not have farmers who grow roundup ready crops continuously, either on public or private lands. Right now, the only roundup ready crop allowed on open space is corn. Even if sugar beets were added we would be far from any continuous use of roundup. However, the next crops likely coming on the market, roundup ready wheat and alfalfa, seem like they would tip the balance. The wheat would be in rotation with the corn and beets — and alfalfa is typically grown for years in one location, in order to rest the soil and add soil nitrogen, so roundup would be used over and over.

8.      Sugar beets seem to me to be one of the crops where GMOs make the most sense. Conventional sugar beets are a very herbicide intensive crop. GMO sugar beets allow significant reductions in total volume of herbicide, a switch from very toxic to much less toxic glyphosate, a significant reduction in fossil fuel use, and since the crop is harvested the first year, but does not flower until the second year, there is very little potential for any pollen drift. The county should require that sugar beet farmers survey their crop for any beets that begin bolting (flowering prematurely), and that these plants be pulled before pollen is produced.

9.      While numerous speakers have testified to worries that organic farmers will lose their certification if there is accidental cross pollination with a GMO crop, the National Organic Program certification standards only ban intentional use of GMOs. A farmer will not lose her organic certification due to inadvertent cross pollination. In the eight years that GMO corn has been grown on county open space, we have not had issues with cross pollination.

Based on all of this, I ended up in a middle position, where I don’t believe we should ban GMOs, but also think we need to be very careful and limited in allowing them, based on the characteristics of particular GMO crops.

I think the experience we have had with corn, under the protocols established in 2003, has been positive: we have seen the expected benefits and have not seen any development of resistant weeds or insects or conflicts with organic farmers.

I also think that allowing the use of roundup ready sugar beets would have a net positive environmental benefit compared to the existing use of conventional sugar beets, so support allowing GMO sugar beets. However, I do not believe we should allow roundup ready alfalfa or other additional roundup ready crops that would be in rotation with corn and sugar beets – and this is reflected in the cropland policy that we adopted.

While the adoption of the cropland policy has been a challenging and divisive process, I do believe that the policy that we have adopted is a reasonable and balanced approach to managing publicly owned farmlands. I hope that the community will be able to unite around areas of common ground — expanding organic production, growing more local food for local consumptions, and reducing the environmental impacts of farming practices.


Will Toor was elected to the Board of County Commissioners in 2004 and was re-elected to serve a second four-year term in 2008.

Will is a recognized community leader for his work and dedication to sustainability. Under his leadership, Boulder County has adopted resolutions on sustainability and Zero Waste, and is developing numerous programs and policies designed to reduce energy waste and transition to more renewable energy sources.


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