July 29, 2009

Why GMOs on Boulder’s public Open Space is a bad idea; what you can do. ~ Michael Brownlee for elephantjournal.com



Update: “Monsanto is upon us…

“Dear Boulderites:

I am requesting the attention of all Boulder County residents who care about the planet: There is a hearing this afternoon regarding planting GMO sugar beets in open space – thousands of acres to be polluted by plants that are *5,000* times more resistant to pesticides than non-gmos. This will [email protected]#$%^& our food sources. I am begging you to be present at the hearing at the courthouse across from the Boulder Theater. ~ Audrey xo

♥Update: video of protest this morn in Boulder, via The Daily Camera:

It’s quite a spectacle to behold. Here in Boulder County—home of the nation’s first carbon tax and the first city to offer property-based financing for solar installations and energy retrofits—we’re watching our County Commissioners wrestle with a proposal from six local farmers seeking official approval to grow Roundup-Ready GMO sugar beets on county-owned open space land.

Actually, the Commissioners so far have been letting their staff, Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee (POSAC), and the recently formed Food and Agriculture Policy Council (FAPC) wrestle with the issues in a series of study sessions and public hearings. The Commissioners will make their own determination on August 25.

In the process, we’ve witnessed Boulder County staff, under the direction of Special Projects Manager Tina Nielsen, make their recommendation to approve the proposed GMO sugar beets even before the study sessions or public hearings could take place. We’ve watched them distribute reams of research supporting GMOs topped off by Tina’s derisive admonition not to make a recommendation based on “a philosophical stand.”

We’ve heard the impassioned pleas of the six local farmers who claim they face something akin to financial ruin if they are not allowed to plant GMO sugar beets this fall. And we’ve also seen dozens of local citizens (and some not so local) line up at the public hearing microphone to offer their perspectives, their opinions, and their passion.

I never thought we’d see this happening in Boulder County. And I never imagined I’d be part of a Council tasked with making a recommendation to the Commissioners on such a crucial issue. It’s been an eye-popping experience.

I find that I’m very uncomfortable with the level of “debate” we’ve witnessed so far, and how we’re essentially being asked to base our decisions on science and economics while other values (such as a “philosophical stand”) are being explicitly discouraged. I’m also very uncomfortable with the Boulder County staff’s claim that utilizing glyphosate (the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup) and GMO sugar beets is somehow consistent with the county’s “sustainability framework.” And I think it’s significant that the first information presented at the joint study session between POSAC and FAPC on May 28 was a 14-minute Monsanto-produced propaganda film demonstrating the wonders of Roundup-Ready GMO sugar beets.

There are some things that are not being said in all this, and I feel compelled to try to give them voice.

First, about the economic argument. The farmers (“the sugar beet six,” as Cindy Torres likes to call them) are caught in a squeeze. Their participation in a sugar beet co-op compels them to produce an agreed amount of beets per acre or face stiff fines. They say they can’t buy non-GMO seeds, because Monsanto has already captured 95% of the U.S. sugar beet seed market. So their only financially viable choice, it seems, is to grow GMO sugar beets. And POS, which receives about $60,000/yr. in leases from these farmers, feels their only financially viable choice is to support the local growers (otherwise who else will care for the open space land?). Alternative crops have been proposed, including organic hay, but the farmers contend this will not generate the margins they need. So it seems that Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready GMO sugar beets are the only choice. No viable options.

Well, the reason this is the only choice is that Monsanto and the biotechnology industry have engineered the situation this way. Boulder County did not put these farmers in this untenable position. They were forced into it, by design. Already the leading global producer of genetically-engineered and patented seeds, Monsanto seeks to achieve full-spectrum dominance of much of the world’s food supply, a strategy which opponents say profoundly threatens our health, environment, and economy.

We should recognize that when choices have been stripped away, we are actually dealing with issues of human freedom. Someone is vying for control, and for suppression of choice.

We can recall another time, in the early days of this nation, when the economic argument was used to defend farmers, when it became undeniable that slavery should be abolished. The institution of slavery was held in place for far too long because farmers claimed they could not afford to farm without slave labor. This undoubtedly became an economically painful transition for many farmers, but necessary nonetheless. We may now need to draw a similar line here.

Second, the sustainability argument. In response to FAPC’s questions, Parks and Open Space admit that they have not adopted a formal policy on agricultural sustainability. But they quote USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) guidelines, which begin by listing “providing a more profitable farm income” as the first of the primary goals of sustainable agriculture. I can think of no other arena where business profits and income are considered at the top of the list of sustainability standards. Something is skewed here. I’m concerned that in Boulder County sustainability issues are being displaced by concerns over income and profits. (This is not without precedent, of course. The previous Administration infamously declared that the U.S. could not afford to follow the Kyoto standards in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, that it would be bad for business.)

Third, the scientific argument. We have been presented with many scientific reports that purport Roundup and GMO sugar beets are not only perfectly safe, but are recommended as part of a sustainable agricultural system. But there are many other scientific reports that dispute these claims. And a lawsuit is still pending in federal court claiming the USDA unlawfully deregulated GMO sugar beets in 2005, without adequate testing, and according to Jeffrey Smith (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-smith/youre-appointing-who-plea_b_243810.html) “the determination of whether GM foods were safe to eat was placed entirely in the hands of the companies that made them.” The lawsuit (brought by the Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club, the Organic Seed Alliance, and High Mowing Organic Seeds) asks for an injunction to halt the planting, sale or distribution of GMO sugar beets. Clearly, there is considerable controversy here. But Monsanto would have us believe that the science is indisputable.

At the recent public hearing held by POSAC, the first public comment came from Mary Lee Chin, a Denver dietician, who spoke passionately in favor of biotechnology and genetically modified foods. This seems a strange position for a nutritionist, given that the beets in question are being used to produce sugar for a nation that is spending 10% of its health costs treating obesity. As she spoke, stating unequivocally that there is no nutritional difference between organic food and food produced by industrial agriculture (hardly the issue here), I realized in horror that we were listening to an industry flak. I felt offended that we were being subjected to such blatant propaganda. A quick Google search reveals that Chin is a featured “biotechnology expert” on Monsanto’s main website, leaving me with the indelible impression she is a paid “expert witness.”

I have great respect for science, but we have all seen data and scientists manipulated to support preposterous propositions. For instance, science has been wrong about Agent Orange, DDT, thalidomide, tobacco, and (until recently) global warming. Dead wrong.

On balance, the scientific evidence about GMO crops, and Roundup-Ready sugar beets in particular, is inconclusive at best. We can find plenty of scientific studies on both sides of the issue.

In short, both the economic and scientific arguments for GMO sugar beets seem specious. I don’t trust them, and other alleged experts emphatically dispute them. We’re not experts, so how do we decide?

For myself, I’m back to what Tina Nielsen derisively calls “a philosophical stand.” In a document addressed to the Food and Agriculture Policy Council, under a section titled “What would Boulder County accomplish by denying the growers’ request?”, Nielsen clearly reveals the Parks and Open Space position: “Denying the request would be a philosophical stand” (presumably, they believe that the request simply cannot be opposed on scientific or economic grounds). “This would not be unprecedented,” she admits, for “a number of counties and communities have taken a stand against GMOs, while many others have taken a stand in favor.” But here comes the kicker. She continues, “As a practical matter, such a stand would not likely influence national or global trends in use of GMOs. Such a stand would not make a difference in the overall use of GMO technology or the use of pesticides. Such a stand would put our tenants at a competitive disadvantage in the market place and harm their ability to continue farming profitably.”

I would like to remind Nielsen that this nation was not founded upon scientific evidence nor upon economic arguments. It was founded in pursuit of freedom, a decidedly philosophical and even moral position. To attempt to remove philosophical and moral issues from the debate about agricultural practices is, to my mind, unconscionable. But this is precisely what Monsanto and the biotechnology industry are demanding, and it seems that Boulder County Parks and Open Space is buying it.

I came away from the POSAC hearing last week with the painful realization that there is a war going on, and we are right on the front lines. It’s a war against human freedom, and so far we’re losing (according to Nielsen, 85% of all corn, 87% of all soybeans, 91% of all cotton, and 95% of all sugar beets grown in the U.S. already are GMO). Accepting the proposal of the “sugar beet six” would be tantamount to surrender, settling for utter defeat.

During the overwhelmingly pro-GMO vote at the hearing last week, POSAC chairman Christian Meyer complained that his committee was “attempting to make a long term decision in the absence of a long term policy.” He’s right, but that didn’t stop him from deciding in favor of the proposal.

There is no clear policy regarding GMOs in Boulder County. And when the issue of GMO corn on county-owned open space land came up several years ago, the Commissioners in 2003 accepted the recommendation of county staff to allow three kinds of GMO corn. Today, nearly 1500 acres of the stuff are quietly growing on Boulder County open space ag lands. However, we simply do not know how many acres of GMO crops are being grown on private land.

We do need a decisive policy on this issue. I believe that policy ought to be a county-wide ban on all GMO and Bt crops on public and private lands. Yes, this is a philosophical and moral stand. And I believe that Boulder County is the right place to take this stand. The world is watching.

Today I received an unexpected email from Kris Holstrom, the Sustainability Coordinator of San Miguel County (Telluride), who said she “would be incensed if someone proposed GMO in our open space land… I really don’t see how GMO and sustainability could ever be compatible.” I asked if her county had a GMO policy. They don’t, of course. But she now plans to initiate the conversation with her County Commissioners.

We need to initiate that same conversation with our Boulder County Commissioners.

~ Michael Brownlee

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