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What We Talk about When We Talk about GMOs

Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media
Genetically-engineered sugar beets covered 135 acres of publicly-owned open space land in Boulder County in 2015.

GMOs, or more precisely, genetically-engineered crops, are lightning rods in discussions of our food. For the farmers who grow them and the scientists who create them, they're a wonder of technology. For those opposed, the plants represent all that's wrong with modern agriculture.

If you want a front row seat to the national fight over GMOs head to Boulder County, Colorado.  That’s where an elected board of commissioners is considering whether to pull the plants off large swathes of publicly-owned land and bar farmers from planting their preferred crops on fields they lease from the county.

“The fundamental of this discussion is that this is land that’s owned by the public,” says Ron Stewart, director of Boulder County’s Parks and Open Space Department.

Since the 1970s, the county has been aggressive in its land acquisition, an effort to prevent urban sprawl and preserve agricultural lands. The county buys farms and leases the land back to farmers. All told, the county manages more than 100,000 acres of pasture, forest trails and farms. Of that land, about 1 percent is planted with GMO corn and sugar beets every year.

Boulder County serves as a microcosm for the larger national, and international, debate about genetic engineering in agriculture. Conventional farmland butts up against headquarters for some of the most recognized organic food brands in the country. The city of Boulder is home to some of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world. It’s also a hub of alternative and homeopathic medicine.

The county’s preserved farmland is a small island in the middle of rapidly expanding urban development. The urban dwellers and non-conventional farmers interspersed in it are more than willing to voice how they think farming on public land should be done. That puts the conventional farmers who lease public land in a unique position.

“The public, I think, rightly thinks it should have a significant input into what practices we should have on open space land,” Stewart says. “[Farmers] know they have to be involved in these types of issues in a way that most farmers across America never do.”

After county commissioners made it clear they’d be revisiting the county’s cropland policy in 2016, factions of proponents and opponents organized. The last time commissioners voted to allow GMO cultivation on county open space in 2011, the decision was unanimous. Five years later two new commissioners, Elise Jones and Deb Gardner — who both declined to comment for this story — created a new dynamic. Both voiced a desire to move away from GMO crops on county-owned land while campaigning in 2012.

Credit Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media
Natural food marketer Steven Hoffman is organizing to persuade Boulder County commissioners to ban cultivation of GMOs on public open space.

Those kinds of campaign promises are emboldening community activists like independent health consultant Mary Smith and natural food marketer Steven Hoffman.

“Two of these county commissioners ran on a platform to ban GMOs,” Hoffman says. “It is why I supported them.”

Mary Smith says the open space lands, “are not being utilized for the benefit of the people of this community.”

“Instead they are being mined by conventional agriculture for commodity crops that are sent outside this community,” she says.

Smith and Hoffman list their concerns that stem from GMO cultivation on Boulder County’s public land. They lament organic farmers struggling to compete, agrichemical companies amassing economic power, pesticides seeping into streams, locally-produced foods lacking at Boulder markets. Important issues all, but not direct results from changing a plant’s genes.

For many conventional farmers, defending GMOs amounts to defending their livelihood or the ability to run their own business without interference. To them, the plants represent the march of agricultural technology, which has improved farm productivity since the end of World War II.

Opponents and proponents of the plant breeding technique lump together a range of genetically-engineered crops under the umbrella of “GMO,” and pack them full of social, political and economic meaning, instead of debating each new plant or technology on its merits.

When we think we’re talking about GMOs, are we really talking about them at all? Or do they serve more as a proxy?

“This is not about GMOs,” Smith says. “This is not about inputs. This is about our right to have access to good, healthful food.”

Credit Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media
Will Toor sat on the Boulder County board of commissioners during the last heated debate about GMOs on public land.

GMOs in many respects are a physical, tangible manifestation of a much larger set of economic and social concerns. Will Toor, a former Boulder County commissioner, knows that firsthand. He sat on the board the last time this issue came up five years ago.

“I certainly think it’s true that GMOs have become symbolic of something much larger,” Toor says.

“And I don’t think they’re a very good symbol at that.”

Toor was the mayor of Boulder when the city’s leaders voted to ban GMO cultivation on the city’s public land, what he calls a symbolic gesture as the city’s property included few parcels appropriate for crop production. When the issue came up during his commissioner tenure he decided to study up. The intense focus on genetic engineering misses the point, Toor says. He’d rather see people organizing for better water efficiency, soil health and adaptation to climate change.

“Those are the interesting questions, and they have almost nothing to do with GMO or non-GMO, or even organic and non-organic,” he says.

Credit Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media
Longmont farmers Famuer Rasmussen, left, and Jules Van Thuyne lease Boulder County open space land.

Farmers Jules Van Thuyne and Famuer Rasmussen lease some of Boulder County’s land to grow GMO corn and sugar beets. They also include malt barley and wheat in their annual crop rotations. For them, the crops are more than a symbol. The plants are another tool in a toolbox to raise a profitable crop, Rasmussen says.

“We have a win-win situation where we help [the Parks and Open Space Department] maintain their ground and it gives us an opportunity to do what we really enjoy making a living at, and that’s farming,” he says.

Because of certain contractual obligations, and the realities of the market for sugar beets, Van Thuyne says a ban on GMOs would upend his operations. He’s not even sure he’d be able to secure conventionally-bred seed to comply.

“These aren’t corporate farms,” Van Thuyne says. “These are farm families that have been here for several generations whose livelihood is very much affected by this decision.”

Ultimately, what happens to 1,000 acres of farmland on Colorado’s Front Range won’t tip the scales in the much larger national debate about GMOs. But one decision could speak volumes about how elected officials interpret science, and how deep the divide is between urban and rural communities.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.