GMO Battle in Boulder Ends With Discontent

boulder county colorado logoSince 2008, the Boulder Colorado community has been divided over the issue of planting of genetically modified crops on the approximately 16,000 acres of public land. While the planting of the first GM crop — corn — was permitted in 2003, it was not until farmers asked for permission to plant RoundUp Ready sugarbeets, modified to withstand continued application of the glyphosate-based herbicide, that the public debate intensified. And despite a vote to phase out GMOs over time by the Open Space Advisory Committee and the Food and Agriculture Policy Council, in the end, the Boulder County Commissioners, who had the final word, approved the planting of GE sugarbeets.

(Check out this article for a detailed history of the GMO approval process in Boulder.)

Boulder’s GMO debate maybe rooted in local politics but its echoes reverberate throughout the nation. Communities, companies and governments are watching the events unfold, gauging the reactions of the parties involved and learning, adapting and anticipating a consumer response to GMOs.

One of the reasons that GMOs were approved, say the Commissioners, was an expressed need to keep farming in Boulder. The County earns about $1.6 million annually from farmers who lease its land. Another reason was the expressed lack of conviction concerning peer-reviewed science and imminent threat to public heath.

But many think that the Commissioners looked the other way when considering the science.

“I’m disappointed and perplexed,” said Tom Theobald to me in a recent conversation in which he shared his concerns about the impact of GMO planting on honey bees and Boulder County’s soil. Mr. Theobald is a Boulder County resident and a long time beekeeper who has been actively trying to protect and sustain the pollinators despite massive die-offs attributed to colony collapse disorder or CCD. “We did a very good job of providing [the Commissioners] with the information, both, in writing and at the meeting, that demonstrated just how short sighted the approval decision was.”

Tom Theobald is concerned about the impact that GMO seeds treated with systemic pesticides will have on soil and bees since now two out of the three crops planted in Boulder County will be GMOs. Systemic pesticides, such as clothianidin made by Bayer CropScience, are of the neonicotinoid family and have been associated with the massive decline in bee populations. Applied to the soil or doused on seeds, neonicotinoid insecticides incorporate themselves into the plant’s tissues, turning the plant itself into a tiny poison factory emitting toxin from its roots, leaves, stems, pollen, and nectar. And they persist in the soil for longer than the older generation pesticides. Systemic pesticides could remain in the soil anywhere between two to three years, and in some cases up to six years, depending on the nature of the soil and the chemical formulation of the pesticide.

And new research from Purdue University shows two seperate pathways in which neoniconitinoids contribute to the decline in bees: “an acute one during spring corn planting, when huge clouds of neonic-infested dust rises up, at doses that kill bees that come into contact with it. Those population losses weaken hives but don’t typically destroy them. And then there’s a gradual effect—what scientists call ‘chronic’—when bees bring in pollen contaminated at low levels by neonicotinoids.”

Tom Theobald is right to be concerned about the systemic pesticides impact on bees during planting of GM corn and beets and through soil absorption by the non-GMO alfalfa, the third and only non-gmo crop in Boulder County’s three crop rotation system. “What will be the uptake by alfalfa?” remarked Mr. Theobald to me. “This is a very serious question,” one that he believes was not properly analyzed by the Commissioners. “What we have here is not crop rotation but serial contamination,” he remarked on Organic View radio.

Boulder’s debate is the paradigmatic case of “act locally, speak globally.” The Boulder County fight lends validity and encouragement to other communities and amplifies their efforts at a crucial time when consumers are realizing that eating is a political act. Increasingly, consumers want to know where food comes from, what is in their food and how it is made before they spend their hard earned money.

But it’s not all about money, as protesters recently announced when they joined farmers and activists during an Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Big Food and Food Democracy Now rally to support farmers and speak out against Monsanto. Eating is also about health: our health, the health of the planet and other inhabitants who occupy it with us. And it’s also about rights, ownership, democracy and biodiversity. Dr. Vandana Shiva once said that “[s]eed is the biggest issue around democracy in food. Seed is a common resource, and we have to protect it for future generations.”

Dr. Shiva and protesters are referring to the fact that in less than two decades, Monsanto expanded its control over 90% of genetically modified seeds and their licenses around the world, and, together with its brethren giants, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, and Aventis, now hold three out of every four GM crop patents in U.S.

In effect, what is taking place is the enclosure of the genetic commons of our biodiversity and the intellectual commons of public breeding by farming communities and public institutions. And the GMO seeds Monsanto is offering are failing.  This is not “improvement” of genetic resources, but degradation. This is not innovation but piracy. [Dr. Shiva]

Dr. Shiva’s argument resonates in Boulder County where, according to a survey done by GMO-Free Boulder, as many as 71 percent of voters do not want genetically modified crops grown on open space land.