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Boulder's naturals industry pioneers gear up for GMO fight

Frequently referred to as one of the epicenters of the organics and natural products industry, Boulder, Colorado, may soon become ground zero for the battle between the forces of organics and those of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Boulder is the home of such pioneering producers of natural products as Celestial Seasonings teas; White Wave, makers of Silk soy milk; Horizon organic dairy; Good Belly, maker of probiotic fruit juice; and dozens of others contributing an estimated $2 billion to the economy. Boulder also was the first in the nation to buy, manage and maintain open space around the city when citizens approved a 4/10 of a cent sales tax to finance the purchases.

Herein begins the problem. In managing the open space, county commissioners and others decide how the land might be used. One option has been to lease low-cost parcels to farmers for growing crops. Recently, six farmers petitioned the county to allow them to grow GMO sugar beets, which are engineered by agribusiness giant Monsanto to resist the company's powerful herbicide Roundup.

Monsanto has been enormously successful in pushing this crop in the US, managing under the Bush administration to get the USDA to approve the seed without preparing a standard environmental impact statement. In just two years, GMO sugar beets now account for more than 90 per cent of the US sugar-beet crop.

When word of the farmers' petition leaked out, it was a huge affront to members of Boulder's natural and organics community, and brought out the industry's heavy hitters.

Steve Demos, who founded White Wave and Good Belly, is one of them. "This is going to become a battle royale," Demos says. "Monsanto is going to spend a bunch of money on this. It is going to become community vs company."

Demos and others, such as Aurora Organic Dairy's chairman Mark Retzloff, immediately took a leadership role in quickly rallying Boulder's citizens and members of the natural and organics community to oppose the lease.

Within a few weeks, and before a meeting by the county commissioners to decide the issue, hundreds of petitions were circulated, anti-Monsanto documentaries were shown in local theaters, and people spread the word at farmer's markets.

By the time the commissioners met on Tuesday, they realized they were up against a burgeoning force of public opinion and did the politically expedient thing, voting to table the farmers' petition until the situation could be further studied.

"They \[Monsanto\] picked a fight with the wrong folks," Retzloff says. "We have a lot of resources and a lot of people who are going to be active on this stuff."

Retzloff thinks that the die is cast. "Monsanto knows they could lose here, and that the ramifications of that are huge. Boulder is a place with lots of highly educated people and thought leaders. Mobilizing out of here means that the entire industry is going to hear about it, and the story is going to end up being much larger than it is now.

"And the more Americans are educated about the dangers of GMOs and Monsanto's tactics, the more problems Monsanto is going to have. Agricultural biotech has Americans in their back pocket, and we have to change that situation, to bring forth the challenges and problems that GMOs are going to cause in the future."

And so Demos says the next round will be to call for a referendum on the policy of what can be grown on open-space land, to educate the community and get the issue on the ballot for public vote.

Retzloff promises it will be a good fight. "They are awakening a sleeping dragon," he says.

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