For nearly 20 years a group of Boulder County residents has advocated for the elimination of genetically modified crops on publicly owned agricultural land. According to KGNU’s Roz Brown, in 2016, they succeeded by getting the County Commissioners to support a proposal to phase out GMO corn and sugar beets, and agreeing on dates to achieve that goal. But that changed as of yesterday.
At packed public hearings earlier this decade, residents told the Boulder County Commissioners they wanted GMOs – genetically modified crops and their associated dangerous chemicals off county land purchased with taxpayer dollars.
“So many people have invested so much time over these last decades, and we’re still where we are,” said Mary Smith, a Longmont resident and founder of an anti-GMO advocacy group. Smith was there in 2016 when the county commissioners agreed to end cultivation of GMO corn on county lands by the end of this year, and GMO sugar beets in 2021.
“These are our lands, it’s our money that bought them,” added Smith. “We told them what we wanted – if they were going to grow food, we want organic food and we said it back in 2011.”
Tom Theobald, owner of the Niwot Honey Farm was one was several beekeepers who urged the commissioners not to renege on their earlier vote.
“My crop was honey,” said Theobald. “I can no longer keep enough bees alive to sustain that business, in part due to neonicotinoids and to a lesser extent glyphosate. We don’t have time to kick this can down the road. These are pesticides like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”
Boulder County owns approximately 25-thousand acres of agricultural land and leases it to qualified operators. Since the 2016 decision to ban GMOs, those operators have come forward requesting an extension saying they are not able to meet the upcoming deadlines. Alan Lewis said operators seemed to bank on not having to comply with the decision.
“They made a bet it would not be implemented, and they made a bet that over the long run they wouldn’t have to change,” said Lewis.
Lewis oversees organic certification and compliance for Natural Grocers, the Colorado-based health food chain.
“Boulder County Parks and Open Space since its inception has only supported conventional ag,” said Lewis. “We have 400 acres of food production on publicly owned open space after 35 years, so it will be another two or three decades before we get to 800 acres.”
While most speakers encouraged the commissioners to abide by their earlier decision, Chris Brown argued a successful transition required more time.
“The original decision seemed slightly abrupt and not a realistic way to make such a major shift,” said Brown.
In recent months, Boulder County open space staff has been working with the private group, Mad Agriculture to modify the 2016 plan. Many speakers were angry that so little public notice was given about the modifications and that taxpayers will now fund Mad Ag at $820,000 over the next four years, to work with local farmers on a transition plan they assumed was well underway.
Before voting for the new plan, Commissioners Deb Gardner and Elise Jones said they took the blame for not pushing on a transition plan sooner. But Jones added that for any plan to be successful, buy-in from farmers was needed.
“If we just let the ban go into effect at the end of the year, we will not have achieved success or created a model for anyone else to replicate,” said Jones.
Carolyn Bninski with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center said the commissioners’ unanimous decision to delay the ban on GMO crops on county-owned land, had undermined her faith in county leaders.
“Martin Luther King Jr. said there is a time when it’s too late, and I think in terms of all the toxic stuff on the planet, we’re getting there,” said Bninski.