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Boulder County Commissioners Choose Ideology Over Results

On March 17, the Boulder County Commission directed county staff to map a plan to begin to “phase out” the use of genetically modified (GM) crops on county open space land. This land has been acquired from farmers to preserve and sustain agriculture in the county and leased back to local family farmers. The criteria governing the management of these lands are public, and most reasonable people would find little in them with which to disagree. The guidance from the present commissioners to move towards eliminating GM crops was not part of the enticement previously used to encourage farmers to cooperate with the county in preserving Boulder’s diminishing open space.

The organic industry would like this to be seen as a trend, part of a burgeoning demand for organic food. But according to the Boulder Daily Camera, and in spite of increased organic sales, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that “organic acreage declined nationally by 10.8 percent from 2008 (4.1 million acres) to 2014 (3.7 million acres). Colorado saw larger declines of 34 percent during that same time, from 153,981 acres in 2008 to 115,116 acres in 2014…. The most commonly cited reason is cost: The resource-intense nature of [organic] production eats away at profit margins and makes organic less attractive during a time of high conventional profits.”

In related developments, the Daily Camera recently noted that the failure rate for organic farms on Boulder open space land is 80 percent. Despite “an agricultural program meant to encourage and support organic farming by providing nearly $1 million in capital expenditures, temporary lease rate reductions, organic certification assistance, weed maintenance and farmer education courses… 19 of 24 organic operations have ceased in the past five years, done in by weeds and weather and the sheer amount of work needed to keep a farm going.”

In the face of such data and experience, it’s hard to find the logic in a policy that deliberately deprives farmers of tools that have delivered substantial economic and environmental benefits to more than 18 million farmers and billions of consumers around the world. The county commissioners, two of whom ran on campaigns promising to ban GM crops, claim a ban will produce a greener and more sustainable Boulder by doing away with a hodge-podge of mythical ills that come with GM crops. This is despite the fact that local and international experts have shared abundant data and experience confirming their superior sustainability and numerous safety, economic, and environmental benefits. Indeed, the Boulder Daily Camera has itself condemned the decision, noting:

GMOs offer a number of environmental benefits, including reduced water usage, reduced soil erosion and reduced carbon emissions because they enable the use of conservation tillage. In a letter to the county commission, the Boulder County/CSU Extension Advisory Committee said a ban on GMOs “would be a step backward in environmental sustainability.” Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Don Brown told the county commissioners that environmental advantages of GMOs dovetail with both the state’s water plan and its climate plan.

One Boulder County organic farmer said, “There’s room for new farms, and I think most farmers would like to see more people farming…. But if you force it, it’s not going to go well. … Forcing it is an unorganic way of creating an organic system.”

But to ideologues, data are subordinate to dogma. Such miscarriages of reason have been seen before, and as Jared Diamond noted in Guns, Germs and Steel, history tells us what to expect:

Any society goes through social movements or fads, in which economically useless things become valued or useful things devalued temporarily. Nowadays, when almost all societies on Earth are connected to each other, we cannot imagine a fad’s going so far that an important technology would actually be discarded. A society that temporarily turned against a powerful technology would continue to see it being used by neighboring societies and would have the opportunity to reacquire it by diffusion (or would be conquered by neighbors if it failed to do so).

If Boulder County actually goes through with banning GM crops (if they can figure out what that does or doesn’t actually mean), the technology is unlikely to diffuse back in time to rescue the family farmers the present commissioners are itching to throw under the flat-tired organic bus.

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