Originally published by Times-Call Local News
November 27th, 2016
by John Fryar
Boulder County commissioners may decide on Wednesday whether to proceed with implementing a plan for phasing out the growing of genetically engineered crops on county-owned farm land.
The commissioners have scheduled a hearing for that afternoon on a GMO phase-out plan drafted by the county's Parks and Open Space Department staff.
As of this past Wednesday morning, however, only one person had taken advantage of a county offer for people to sign up in advance, online, to speak at that hearing, according to Gabi Boerkircher, a spokeswoman for the commissioners' office.
While people can still sign up in advance for the hearing or can sign up to speak when they show up — that's a sharp contrast to last Feb. 27, when more than 100 people testified at a marathon 9 ½ hour-long hearing by the county commissioners and their Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee on the issue of whether Boulder County should continue, modify or end its current policy of allowing tenant farmers to grow some genetically engineered crops on county-owned open space properties.
Subsequent to February's hearing, Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee members voted 5-3 on March 15 to recommend that Boulder County continue to allow GMO corn and sugar beets.
However, the Boulder County commissioners decided on March 17 to direct the county staff to proceed with preparation of a GMO phase-out plan.
Commissioner Cindy Domenico — the sole remaining board member who had voted in December 2011 for a cropland policy that included allowing genetically engineered corn and sugar beets — said in March that she supported the advisory panel's recommendation to continue allowing GMO crops to be grown on county-owned lands.
But Domenico said in March that she appeared to be in the minority on the current board, with Commissioners Elise Jones and Deb Gardner favoring a phase-out.
A push for 'research first'
The county's current cropland policy provisions permitting the growing of GMO corn and sugar beets expire at the end of this year.
Jones' and Gardner's stance on phasing out GMOs was one of the public policy disagreements pushed in this fall's election campaigns by Kevin Sipple and Paul Danish, the Republican candidates who sought unsuccessfully to unseat Jones and Gardner in the Nov. 8 election. Domenico's commissioner's seat wasn't up for election this year.
Dan Lisco, president of the Farmers Alliance for Integrated Resources, an organization whose members include a number of the farmers who lease and grow GMO crops on county-owned lands, said on Friday that a number of FAIR's farmers intend to testify at Wednesday's hearing.
"We're going to keep trying to push for research first" before the transition begins, Lisco said.
Lisco said the lack of advance sign-ups for Wednesday's hearing may, "to some extent," reflect a feeling that "the commissioners aren't going to listen to anything" more from farmers and scientists who maintain that genetically engineered crops are safe and that they have been and can continue to be grown safely and without negative impacts on the environment or the county-owned farm land.
Richard Andrews, an organic farmer who's been arguing for years against the county allowing GMO crops on its lands, said on Friday that he'll be speaking at the hearing, where he will again question why the county would allow three to five years for the phasing out of such crops — and would allow several years of continued applications of chemicals used to control pests and weeds in fields of genetically engineered crops — rather than eliminating them immediately.
Andrews said the fact that only one person had signed up in advance to speak on Wednesday might stem from "some recognition that something's moving forward" on a GMO phase-out, "even if it's several years out."
While coming from opposite points of view, both Lisco and Andrews questioned the adequacy of the three-page transition plan drafted by the Parks and Open Space staff.
Several factors influence planting acreage
Boulder County leases about 25,000 acres of agricultural land to tenants, the county staff reported in October. That includes about 16,000 acres of cropland used primarily for irrigated and dryland crops and irrigated pasture lands.
At the beginning of the 2016 growing season, 13 tenants intended to plant 1,979 acres with genetically engineered crops, about 12 percent of the total cropland. GMO corn crop acreage on those county lands typically comprises about 70 percent of the total genetically engineered crops, averaging about 1,200 acres a year. The number of acres planted in genetically engineered sugar beets has ranged from 494 acres in 2012 to 135 acres last year.
The acres planted with GMO crops varies from year to year due to a combination of factors, including crop rotation regimes that include both the farmers' plantings on private land they own or lease as well as on land they lease from the county, and also weather and market conditions.
The Parks and Open Space staff publicly unveiled its phase-out transition plan in mid-October — one that would allow GMO corn to be grown for another three years and GMO sugar beets for another five years— and sought comments about it during an Oct. 24 open house and an Oct. 27 advisory committee hearing.
Thirteen people spoke at the advisory panel's Oct. 27 hearing, Speakers included Lisco and several other farmers who argued that more research is needed before the county forces tenants to stop growing genetically engineered crops. The committee also heard from some critics of the pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals used with GMOs, including Andrews.
At the conclusion of that October hearing, Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee members requested that they be given at least three more months to consider and receive more data about the proposed transition plan.
The Parks and Open Space staff notified the commissioners of the committee's request for additional time, but the commissioners decided to proceed with their own already-scheduled Wednesday hearing on the plan — a county board position department director Eric Lane presented to the advisory committee on Nov. 17.
After getting Lane's report, several advisory committee members made individual suggestions and comments for Lane to take back to the Board of County Commissioners. But the advisory panelists did not vote on any formal action to express the committee's official support of or opposition to the three-page transition plan that the commissioners will consider Wednesday.