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The GMO debate from Boulder to Washington

The GMO debate from Boulder to Washington

I live in a strange, and somewhat surreal, place. Boulder, Colo., is considered the happiest and fittest place in the country. I’d be willing to bet we have more natural products retailers and natural products sales per capita than anywhere in the country, with three Whole Foods Markets, Vitamin Cottage, Alfalfa’s Market, Sprouts Farmers Market,and Sunflower Market all within close proximity, not to mention the Safeway and Kroger stores that are also laden with ample organic and natural offerings. Pharmaca is headquartered here, too, and Justin’s Nut Butter, Horizon, Silk, Good Belly, Celestial Seasonings, Rudi’s Organic Bakery and Pangea Organics are just a few companies that call Boulder home.

So why in the world would this town, this county, that prides itself on being the happiest, healthiest, most organic and natural product-focused in the country allow GMO crops to be grown on Boulder County Open Space agricultural lands?

Dozens of countries, including the European Union, China, Japan and Australia have banned or restricted GMOs because of the lack of testing or long-term studies covering the effects of GMOs on the environment and human health. A friend recounted to me recently how when he lived in England, he first became aware of GMOs when the checkout clerk at his local food store separated all of the GMO vs. non-GMO foods he was buying. She just wanted him to “be aware” that he was buying GMO foods.

My friend called this his “aha" moment. He realized then he should start paying closer attention to this issue. He now works for Silk, whose products are all Non-GMO Project verified. England, like many European countries, since has mandated the labeling of GMO foods.

But GMO labeling is optional in the U.S., and that labeling is largely implemented through the Non-GMO Project. The “Just Label It!” campaign, driven by industry advocates, has filed a legal petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration calling on the FDA to label genetically engineered foods. In my mind, labeling GMO foods is simply our right to know what is in our food.

How GMOs contaminate the food supply

GMO products start with GMO crops and companies like Monsanto, whose “Roundup Ready crops” are at the heart of the issue. Monsanto and a few other companies, such as Syngenta and DuPont, have been driving the infiltration of GMO crops in part by their ownership of seed companies. The Independent Professional Seed Association estimates that there are probably only 100 seed companies left, down from more than 300 companies13 years ago.

Not only are there questions surrounding the safety of GMO foods, the existence of GMO crops put non-GMO crops at risk. If you happen to have an organic farm next to a farm that grows GMO crops, the onus is on the organic farmer to keep GMO drift off of his land and prove the purity of his crops. GMO crops threaten our choice for organic, or really, our choice for non-GMO, organic or not.

While private farmlands face the GMO versus organic crops challenge, why escalate the problem by allowing more GMO crops on public lands? To be clear, GMO corn has been growing on limited public lands for about a decade. The current issue came into the spotlight in 2008, when six farmers asked to grow GMO sugar beets on Boulder's public lands. A decade ago, GMO was not in the headlines, little was known about it, and Monsanto’s move to gobble up seed companies was happening with little public awareness. But since 2008, the general public has become more aware and more vocal. As a result, the 2008 request was stalled until now.

Boulder's GMO policy

The Boulder County Open Space decision is not fait accompli. Boulder County has now developed a cropland policy, which outlines that GMO crops should be allowed with limitations, only if the benefits outweigh the risks. But who decides benefits over risks? Especially when we need time to truly understand the risks of GMOs (think Agent Orange or BPA).

There will be a session for the public to comment on this proposed policy on Dec. 8 at 6 p.m. in the Longmont Conference Center. In the meantime, a local group, GMOKnow, has developed its own Citizens Cropland Policy [PDF], which calls for a GMO ban, and outlines ways to manage the land with a sustainable future in mind.

To me, allowing more GMOs on public lands in Boulder is akin to watching a car wreck in slow motion. You can see the destruction happening before your eyes. Some people choose to look the other way, some people scream, others watch in awe, not able to process what is happening fast enough.

No matter, the damage is irreversible. The damage is done. Sadly, the damage here, in this happy, healthy place, is but a glimpse at what is happening in the rest of the country. It threatens the health of our land. In the larger context, as an unknown entity, GMOs place at risk the health of our food system, and therefore, our health, not to mention that of our children. I prefer the happy, healthy Boulder, and I appreciate everyone in who continues to raise their voice to say "No" to GMOs in Boulder County

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