Monday, August 8, 2011

Boulder County decision

Boulder County nearing decision on GMO crops
By Laura Snider
Boulder Daily Camera
August 08, 2011

Advisory group to make final recommendations by October

After six months of discussing the complexities of sustainable farming in Boulder County — from pest management to water supplies to soil health — a nine-member volunteer advisory board will tackle its most controversial subject Wednesday: genetically modified crops.

The Croplands Policy Advisory Group was formed to create a set of recommendations for how the county should manage the 18,000 acres of cropland owned by the Parks and Open Space Department. And while the final policy will address a wide range of issues, the decision about whether farmers who lease land from the county will be allowed to plant genetically modified crops has garnered the most public attention.

“This is going to be a very tough decision — we all know this,” said Jeanette Hillery, a member of the advisory group. “We know that there are a lot of people with deep feelings on both sides. We’re going to try and come up with what we feel will be the best thing.”

The topic rocketed into the collective Boulder County consciousness in 2009 after six local farmers who cultivate crops on county open space land asked the department for permission to plant sugar beets that have been genetically modified to resist the herbicide Roundup. The farmers argued that they needed to be able to compete in an agricultural market where the vast majority of sugar beets are genetically modified.

But a vocal group of GMO opponents argued that genetically modified crops may be dangerous to people’s health and that the county should encourage more organic farms and smaller community agricultural co-ops on public land. In the fall of 2009 — after a series of public meetings — the Boulder County commissioners decided to postpone making a decision about sugar beets until the open space department had created a comprehensive plan for sustainably managing agriculture on public land.

Nearly two years later, the plan is set to be unveiled to the public at an open house in October. For now, the Cropland Advisory Group — which is made up of three conventional farmers, three organic farmers and three at-large community members — is continuing to meet twice a month to speak with experts and to hash out recommendations among themselves.

For each policy decision, including GMO crops, the recommendation will be decided by a majority vote, but those in the minority will be able to write up a report explaining their position, according to Jesse Rounds, an agricultural planner for the county. Those minority reports will accompany the majority recommendations when the management plan goes before the Open Space Advisory Committee and the Food and Agriculture Policy Council. Ultimately, the Boulder County commissioners will make the final decision.

The citizen advisory group, which was appointed by the county commissioners, does not take public comment at each meeting, though written comments are accepted, and that has caused some frustration among members of the public who have been following the policy development, Rounds said.

In response, the department is setting up a “listening session” that will give the public a chance to ask questions and give feedback directly to Ron Stewart, open space department director, and David Bell, agricultural division manager. The date for the session has not yet been set.

Public input will also be taken when the Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee and the Food and Agriculture Policy Council take up the issue and before the county commissioners make a final decision.

Mary Smith, who founded the group GM Know last November, said she has concerns beyond the amount of public input that is being taken. Smith — who believes that genetically modified crops should not be allowed on public land — said she thinks the group should be made up of citizens instead of farmers. Allowing farmers (both conventional and organic) to serve on the advisory group represents a conflict of interest, she said.

“This land is jointly owned by the citizens, and it’s something we should have a say in,” she said. “This is a citizens rights issue, really.”

But advisory group member Hillery said it’s been valuable to have diverse opinions among group members who are educated on what it takes to eke out a living from the land.

“We’ve really learned a lot about each other,” said Hillery, who is not a farmer. “We’ve learned to respect each other.”

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