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That's what she said

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A Food Fight at Sherpa’s Restaurant


Boulder County Open Space wheat (photo by Meaghan Huffman)

A PLAN-Boulder County forum at Sherpa’s Adventurers Restaurant and Bar on the evening of Monday, November 14, about the wisdom of banning genetically engineered crops from Boulder County Open Space may have generated more heat than light, with the four panelists disagreeing, sometimes emphatically, on almost all aspects of the issue.

More Food Production

One of the panelists, Daniel Bush, a professor and chairman of the biology department at Colorado State University, asserted that more genetically engineered crops are needed in order to increase food production for an expanding human population, which he predicted will exceed 9 billion by 2050. He called for people to not shy away from such food because of irrational fear. But another panelist, Mary Mulry, who holds a Ph.D. in food science and operates Food Wise, a consulting firm dedicated to the creation of organic and natural foods, contended that there is and can in the future be an ample supply of food without more genetically engineered crops. She claimed that waste and poor distribution are the major detriments to the food supply, not inadequate crop breeding, and argued that diverse crops should be grown on small plots by farmers dispersed among consumers in the Third World.

Human Health

Bush argued that the genetic engineering of crops—involving the “splicing” of genes from other plants and animals—is essentially just a more efficient form of traditional cross-breeding, which has been commonly practiced without controversy since 1900. He also claimed that genetically engineered crops have been harvested for over 15 years without any harm to human health. Another panelist, Mary Smith, who co-founded GMKnow, a Boulder County organization that promotes organic food and opposes genetically engineered food, turned that argument on its head, insisting that 15 years of experience is too short a period of time to prove the safety of genetically engineered crops.

Bush also maintained that genetically engineered crops are carefully regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency, while cross-bred crops, which pose essentially the same risks, escape such regulation. Smith argued that federal regulation is lax and the federal agencies only consider tests conducted by the seed companies themselves. Bush refuted that assertion and stated that the government agencies commissioned studies by independent researchers and also ran tests themselves.

Environmental Impacts

A major, if not the major, purpose of genetic engineering of crops is to develop plants that will not be harmed by certain pesticides, principally glyphosate, which is often sold as “RoundUp.”  By extensively spraying pesticides on their fields farmers can control weeds much more easily and cheaply than through other means. Mulry argued that glyphosate remains for years in water and air and binds important minerals in the soil, preventing plants from absorbing them and reducing their nutritional value. Smith stated that some seeds are dipped in a pesticide, Bt, which can contaminate the soil for 100 years.

But Bush asserted that that same pesticide is used by organic farmers without any demonstrated, ill effects. Another panelist, Dea Sloan, a member of the Boulder County Cropland Policy Advisory Group, pointed out that glyphosate and another common pesticide 2,4-D have been in use for 35 years and have  generally proven to be  less harmful to various animals, including birds and worms, than other chemicals. She recounted driving between adjacent parcels of Boulder County open space farm land and private farm land in Weld County. The open space farms, she said, were required to use “a cocktail of six chemicals,” while the Weld County farms used glyphosate and/or 2,4-D. She observed that the soil on the Weld County farm was healthier and the crops more robust.

Sloan acknowledged that “super weeds” that are resistant to glyphosate have appeared in the American Midwest. But she asserted that this development was the result of continuous use of glyphosate, which does not occur on Boulder County Open Space, where farmers rotate crops. She pointed out that a farmer growing genetically engineered sugar beets and corn on open space land would only apply glyphosate two times in four years, which she indicated would not be nearly enough to create “super weeds.”


A possible environmental impact of genetically engineered crops is cross-pollination of non-genetically engineered crops, thereby potentially creating new hybrids. Mulry asserted that plant breeders have to rely on original crops and that cross-pollination impedes their work. She claimed that it is difficult to confine crops to the fields where they were originally planted. However, Bush and Sloan separately asserted that buffer zones between fields have shown great effectiveness in preventing cross-pollination of corn.

Discouragement of Farmers

Smith proclaimed that only 70 farmers lease Boulder County Open Space land and that their convenience should not be allowed to override the expressed desires of the citizens of Boulder County, who own the open space land and generally want genetically engineered crops prohibited from it. She also contended that many future farmers without leases are clamoring to use organic methods on Boulder County Open Space and other lands.

Sloan and Bush sharply disputed Smith’s claims. Sloan, while conceding that the amount of organic farming has grown dramatically in the last two decades, pointed out that nevertheless it accounts for only a tiny portion, .7 percent, of food production in the United States. She predicted that a ban on genetically engineered crops would demoralize farmers and result in much, if not most, of Boulder County’s Open Space agricultural land lying uncultivated. She contended that most Boulder County farmers already act as careful stewards of the land and committed environmentalists. Bush asked why, if there is such a large supply of potential organic farmers, so little food is now produced organically.

Mulry called for a transition period to move farmers away from traditional practices to organic methods. She claimed that a lot of farmers’ decisions are based on habit and idiosyncratic, personal preferences for particular crops and predicted that most could be gradually shifted to organic agriculture.

One subject on which the panelists did agree was the need for more local processing of food in Boulder County. Mulry observed that locally grown food is almost always shipped to California or another state for processing and then shipped back to Boulder. She remarked that many more vegetables used to be produced by Japanese farmers in Boulder County, and that beans can be grown successfully here. Sloan claimed that Boulder County farmers would welcome having their crops processed locally and called for canning factories and mobile processing plants to be established here, as well as for the expansion of marketing opportunities through the formation of grower co-operatives.

Boulder County Commissioner Will Toor, who was a member of the large audience packed into the upstairs room at Sherpa’s, commented that Boulder County has been trying hard to increase organic production on its open space land by giving preferences to organic farmers in the selection of lessees and operatiang a program to train organic farmers. However, he reported that, despite those concerted efforts, only about 2,000 acres—or about 10 percent of open space agricultural land—is now or soon will be farmed organically. That percentage, though, is still well above the national average.

Another member of the audience who is a prominent, local honey producer asserted that what he called “systemic pesticides” have proven to be terribly destructive to bees. He disclosed that last year his honey crop was the smallest it has ever been. He also noted that native pollinators have declined by 80 percent in Iowa and that it is commonly perceived that the number of bugs getting stuck in car grills and smashed on windshields have dropped dramatically across the country.

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