The Boulder County (Colorado) Commission voted last Wednesday to delay action on a farmer’s eight-month-old application to cultivate biotech sugar beets on county land.
The delay comes at the request of the 6 member-growers of sugar beets on Boulder County Open Space land. In a letter to commissioners the growers said,
“We would like to have the opportunity to grow Roundup Ready sugar beets like the other sugar beet growers in the United States and Canada, but our request has turned into a broader emotional debate that has deeply divided our community. We respectfully ask that you delay any decision on the petition to allow the community time to find ways for our farming operations to coexist as they have for many years before.”
The outcome of the meeting was a nod in the direction of the farmers as commissioners welcomed the idea of putting off the decision until a more comprehensive GMO policy could be developed, which county staff say could take up to a year.
Julia Wrapp, left, of Boulder, and Bonnie McCormick listen to presenters at a Boulder County Board of Commissioners meeting on genetically modified beets Tuesday. ( Stephanie Davis )
For their part, county staff supports the growers request to grow the beets on Open Space land and has made the recommendation to both the Parks and Open Space Advisory Council, and the Food and Ag Policy Council, who have both submitted conflicting recommendations to commissioners on the issue. Staff also supports the growers’ new request to delay a decision.
“We’re supporting the growers’ request to delay the decision,” said Tina Nielsen, special projects manager for the open space department.
Commissioners Ben Pearlman, Cindy Domenico and Will Toor said Boulder County should first complete a comprehensive study to guide the future management of the thousands of acres of agricultural land the county leases to farmers. That management plan is expected to recommend what Toor called “a broader GMO policy” that Boulder County officials can consult when considering farmers’ requests to plant biotech crops on county-owned land.
Despite calls for a county-wide ban on GM crops by activists, the decision signaled that the commissioners do feel that GM crops might have a place in Boulder County agriculture and more specifically, within the boundaries of the county’s 17,000 acres of public farmland.
“I don’t think today is the right day to make a final decision about genetically modified beets,” said Commissioner Ben Pearlman. “They need to be part of a comprehensive look at what we want out of agriculture on our county’s open-space land.”
Mr. Pearlman’s comments were encouraging to the growers and to Colorado Farm Bureau. Equally encouraging were Commissioner Toor’s comments which seemed to warm to the industry’s arguments about the need for and safety of Roundup Ready crops. Before three different public meetings on the subject, Mr. Toor had originally signaled that he would vote against the petition to allow the use of the beets.
“In the end, the commissioners know that they have neither the resources nor the expertise to manage the county’s Open Space land without the help of the farmers,” said Troy Bredenkamp of the Colorado Farm Bureau. “The farmers need this tool if they are going to stay on Open Space land.”
The vigorous debate on the issue has not gone unnoticed. Last week the Denver Post editorial board came out in favor of the grower’s request. Columnist Vincent Carroll has supported the growers in two separate columns, one after the Food and Ag Policy Council meeting and another after last week’s delay.
For their part, the six farmers have stated that they can hold out for another year growing conventional beets, while the GMO policy is developed. This is the second year that the new beets have been available across the country and already 98% of this year’s crop is Roundup Ready. This makes it exceedingly difficult to find conventional seed.
“We can hold out for another year,” said Jules VanThuyne, one of the six farmers. “After that, we will have to make some tough decisions if you (the commissioners) don’t find in our favor.”
Several members of the Boulder County Farm Bureau were present at the meeting along with state staff and industry representatives. Members from Boulder County gave testimony in support of the petition to delay.