[I wrote this letter for our local papers but want to share it with my readers first because many of you are interested in this topic and I’d love comments.]
My daughter needs a gluten-free diet so I’m used to checking labels and asking at restaurants about gluten-free options. But as an organic farmer in Boulder County, I’m also concerned about the future of our food safety now that GMOs are entering our diets. A recent study in Canada found the Bt gene in the bodies of pregnant women and their unborn babies. Since the women ate conventional diets, the Bt most likely came from corn genetically modified to contain the Bt pesticide. But because GMO foods aren’t even labeled, we’re not allowed to know whether these potential allergens are in the foods we eat, even if we try to avoid them.
In 2003, the Boulder County commissioners held a public meeting about allowing GM corn on leased county open space agricultural land. Speaking in favor of GMO crops, the State Secretary of Agriculture asked the commissioners not to “take away our tools.” When then-commissioner Paul Danish remarked to anti-GMO advocates that GM seeds were already in use so “we can’t be virgins,” organic farmer John Martin brought down the house with “We may not be virgins but we don’t have to be prostitutes.” Despite community concerns, the commissioners decided to allow GM corn on publicly owned land.
Now the county is trying to craft protocol about open space agricultural usage and the biggest debate surrounds more genetically modified crops—sugar beets most immediately—and the value of growing them in our county. On the pro-GMO side are some farmers and chemical agricultural interests like CSU and farm consultants who claim that GMOs increase yields, decrease pesticide use, and are the wave of the future for feeding an increasing world population.
On the anti-GMO side are environmentalists, organic farmers and businesses, and citizens concerned about public health. They argue that GM crops should not be allowed on publicly owned land because GMOS threaten organic agriculture, are predicated on evermore dangerous pesticides as weed resistance increases, and pose devastating risks to health through the introduction of potential allergens. Opponents also point to the terrible track records of chemical companies like Monsanto, the lack of peer-reviewed studies regarding problems to ecosystems and human health, and the inadequate governmental process for determining safety of these new types of organisms.
At a recent panel discussion of these issues, an agricultural consultant echoed the State Secretary of Agriculture by lamenting that government is “taking away our tools.” Yet the reason those tools were taken away is their toxicity. Take DDT: Scientists started raising questions about its horrible impact on natural systems in the 1940s, yet it wasn’t banned until 1972, ten years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring alerted the public to its dangers. Clearly, that “tool” wasn’t a good one to keep in the toolbox.
As an organic farmer, I believe that GMOs “tools” are already proving dangerous and certainly don’t belong on publicly owned land. Farms like ours face potential destruction if GM drift contaminates our crops and we as farmers face lawsuits from biotech companies if GM plants are found on our land. Looking to the future, our farm would never consider selling our land to open space if GM crops might be allowed here some day. Even if the county required GM farmers to carry huge liability policies, I cannot see the possibility of GM and organic co-existing in any long-term relationship because the county cannot protect organic crops from contamination. But beyond particular organic farms like ours, the county is responsible for protecting the health of its open space land and the citizens that live here.
It’s time for Boulder County to take steps away from risky agricultural practices and start down the road to environmentally sustainable policies–which in the long run will prove economically sustainable as well–by banning GM crops, leasing smaller acreages to encourage farming for local consumption, connecting local growers with local organic businesses, and supporting transitions away from chemical dependency through organic practices that increase yields and improve soil for better human and planetary health.
If, like me, you read labels and are concerned about how the food you eat is grown, urge Boulder County to be governmental leaders toward new agricultural practices by emailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org.