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County Commissioners postpone transition to non-GMO crops


Courtesy photo Niwot’s Tom Theobald speaks at the June 3 Boulder County Commissioners meeting regarding the dangers genetically engineered crops and neonicotinoid pesticides on Boulder County Parks and Open Space properties.

Conversion of Boulder County leased farmland to genetically modified-free zones has been extended by county commissioners for another two years for corn crops and four additional years for sugar beet crops. The highly-charged issue brought out concerned citizens and farmers, making for standing room only during the June 3 hearing.

Fiddling with the genetics of the seeds isn’t the biggest issue. It’s the chemicals added to the seeds, glyphosates (found in Roundup) and neonicotinoids (neonics) that are alarming to many consumers and concerned citizens. Harm to bee colonies and the leaching of these chemicals into our soil and groundwater are the primary dangers cited.

The battle to eliminate chemical agriculture use on open space began some 20 years ago through grassroots efforts. The BOCC officially committed to that policy in 2016 and gave corn farmers until the end of 2019 and sugar beet farmers until 2021 to shift to non-GMO crops on county leased land. The decision was then handed over to the county parks and open space staff to implement.

Niwot’s Tom Theobald is the founder and former president of the Boulder County Beekeepers Association. He operated Niwot Honey Farm for 40 years and has been at the forefront of sounding the alarm on GMO seeds as he watched his bee colonies die off and his prosperous business come to an end. He said there’s been a loss of nearly 80 percent of bee colonies per year and this was never the case before neonics were on the scene. Previously, a bad year for his bees would have been a loss of 10 percent, he said.

Theobald said, “Ninety-five percent of neonics goes into the soil and the groundwater. They have half-lives of years. The effect on the lower level organisms at the bottom of the food chain - water invertebrates and pollinator insects of various kinds - is cumulative and irreversible and over time they reach a toxic level.“

His concern for the effects of chemical farming on bees is just part of why he’s been so vocal. “We’re beginning to see a lot of neurological and behavioral problems in children that we never saw before,” Theobald said. “Are we prepared to sacrifice a whole generation of children to this insanity?”

While some advocates of GMO crops have said that naysayers are using anecdotal data, three recent legal decisions against Monsanto’s Roundup have proven that juries are convinced glyphosate is cancer causing. Thousands of other cases are currently pending trial.

Of the 25,000 acres of leased Boulder County agricultural land, ten farms grow nearly 1,800 acres of genetically modified corn and sugar beets. 

Eric Lane, director of Boulder County Parks and Open Space said, “Each of our tenant farmers has a unique operation so a one size fits all solution was just not going to result in a favorable outcome for most of them. Despite our efforts and those of the tenants over the last two years, our assessment last fall was that, collectively, we were not making progress quickly enough to facilitate a successful transition in the short period of time codified by our initial transition plan.”

As the original deadlines approached and progress toward that end was nil, the county hired local agricultural consulting company, Mad Agriculture (Mad Ag). Mad Ag’s meetings with farmers led to the proposal presented to county officials to extend the transition. Phil Taylor, Executive Director of Mad Ag said the plan includes new crop options that will serve as local food sources such as legumes versus the commodity crops of corn and beets which leave the area. His company’s plan is to compel farmers to enlist the new methods for leased land on their private land as well, and to regenerate depleted soil.

“This proposal will grant additional time for each of the tenants to develop and refine their own path forward in a manner that not only achieves the objectives of the 2016 policy, but does so in a more collaborative process that fosters long-term change and retains the livelihoods and heritage of local farming for our valued open space stewards,” Lane said.

Some speakers were angered about the lack of public notice of hiring Mad Ag and the June 3 hearing. Many also expressed feeling betrayed by county officials regarding the lack of follow through after the original hard-fought decision in 2016.

Farmers at the hearing said Mad Ag’s plan is the only way forward, while opponents to the extension said the county hired Mad Ag at the taxpayers’ cost of $824,000 to cover for their lack of action.

Longmont resident and health professional Mary Smith has been a longtime spokesperson on the negative aspects of chemical agriculture. She sees patients with chronic health issues and has found high levels of toxins such as glyphosate through blood testing.

The use of neonics on Boulder city property was banned in 2015. What county farmers and homeowners do on their private land is not mandated.

During the hearing, citizens opposing the extension insisted that the current timeline for the ban remain in place. They proposed only organic seeds be planted going forward and at the end of the season, whatever money would have been paid for what is likely a smaller harvest should be supplemented by the county to make the farmers whole. Another suggestion was for the county not to lease the farmland, forcing tenant farmers to find private land elsewhere. This would allow county owned land to be regenerated with cover crops of native grasses for three years leading to organic certification in the fourth year.

BOCC’s Deb Gardner and Elise Jones campaigned on promises to eliminate chemicals and GMO crops from Boulder county land. The two commissioners fell on their swords at the end of the meeting just before they approved the extension of the transition period. Gardner said she had not done her part to drive forward a plan and hadn’t pushed county staff hard enough. Jones admitted her lack of “ownership” in making the transition.

However, all three commissioners believed that mandating an immediate ban on present farming resources would not lead to success or replicability. They said they’re are looking to Boulder County and Mad Ag to take the lead on this issue so that farmers in other counties and states will use the transition as a model for chemical-free farming.

The result of the unanimous BOCC vote is that tenant farmers must transition their corn crops to non-GMO seeds by 2021 and sugar beet farmers have until 2025.

Smith said, “We as a people are completely disempowered in this issue. They’ve defied the will of the people because the land is basically paid for with public dollars. If we allow the continued use of these chemicals on our public land, we as a citizenry and as a county government are at legal risk.”

Theobald’s reaction to the extension decision was, “What it’s going to do is subject everybody in the county to further poisoning by these chemicals. The commissioners failed to live up to their commitments.”


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