The Sugar Beet Campaign: Digging into the Boulder County GM Crop Phaseout

The harvest and processing of sugar beets is often referred to as “the campaign,” which pays tribute to the fact that beet farming is not for the faint of heart—it requires arduous and calculated work towards an end goal of producing 1,035,000 tons of sugar for the state of Colorado. Sugar beet harvest lasts around six weeks in the state, which normally begins in the fall when the first frost hits. This signal from nature shuts down the root system growth, which in turn alerts farmers to start digging around the clock and delivering the beets for processing.

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Photo Credit: Jennifer Schlagel

Harvest, of course, is only one segment of farming. Planning, planting, mechanical maintenance, labor, environmental and ecologic considerations, soil health and herbicide use represent a few items on a lengthy list of decisions that farmers must make with expert precision. In recent years, regulation on cropping systems have added to this list of decisions, most notably the genetically modified crop controversy in Boulder County.

In 2016, the Boulder County commissioners voted a two-thirds majority to ban the use of genetically modified crops on Boulder County Parks and Open Space, which is county owned land that is leased to farming tenants. The ruling allowed farmers a three-year transition period for GM corn and a five-year period for GM sugar beets.

As part of this ruling, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Innovation Initiative (SARII) was developed to further study the impacts from the GM ban, including a solution for new crop rotations in the absence of GM corn and sugar beets that would help ease the economic burden on farmers.

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Photo Credit: Jennifer Schlagel

Although the commissioners cycled through two rounds of requests for proposals (RFP) from researchers for SARII, all bids were rejected. According to the Boulder County commissioners, the RFP for SARII has been discontinued, noting that staff will continue to work with farmers on the transition.

This raised some serious red flags for Dr. Rebecca Larson, Ph.D., the Vice President and Chief Scientist of Western Sugar Cooperative. A plant pathologist and agricultural researcher of over 18 years, Larson submitted a RFP in the first round, and a revised proposal in the second round, only to be rejected overall. The reasons as to why the comprehensive and well-qualified proposal for SARII was rejected remains unclear.

Colorado State University, the land grant institution well-known for its renowned agricultural research, is also out of the running for the Boulder County research, despite efforts to submit a RFP.

Regarding both the Boulder County GM ban and the discontinued research project, Larson notes,

“This is ideologically based, not science based.”

Referring to a National Academy of Sciences report, Larson points to scientific, peer-reviewed research that has overwhelmingly shown the benefits of using genetically modified crops. The 2016 report summarizes evidence collected over the past two decades in assessing both the benefits and risks associated with GM crops. Ultimately, there is no evidence to show any cause and effect relationship between the use of GM crops and the environment, including risks to human and animal health.

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Photo Credit: Jennifer Schlagel

Other peer-reviewed research has shown similar findings, such as a comprehensive assessment using data on the environmental impact of GM crop use from 1996-2015. Agricultural researchers’ Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot claim that GM technology has led to decreased pesticide use while cuts in fuel use and tilling has reduced greenhouse gas emissions to the equivalence of 11.9 million cars being taken off the road. Specific to sugar beet production, GM herbicide tolerant (HT) technology has helped decrease the number of applications of herbicides to the crop.

Regardless of the amounts of evidence in favor of GM technology, the Boulder County ban on GM crops on county owned land is still intact. Although the commissioners were faced with loud opposition from farmers, industry professionals and groups like the Farmers Alliance for Integrated Resources (FAIR), two of the commissioners ran on an anti-GMO platform which ideologically aligned with many residents of Boulder County. It seems that any kind of science-based evidence to repeal the GM crop ban is not a sufficient platform. As quoted from the Boulder County POS Cropland Policy:

“Boulder County needs to protect its citizenry and the ecosystem inhabitants under its stewardship, such as our pollinators, birds, terrestrial invertebrates, and aquatic life, even we as humans. All are being exposed to genetically engineered organisms at a time when we human stewards lack a thorough and deep understanding of what the health effects may be.”

The Schlagel’s, a multigenerational farming family dating back before the 1950’s, are directly impacted by the GM crop ban, as a portion of their sugar beets are farmed on Boulder County Open Space. Speaking with Paul Schlagel, a strong voice in the GM debate, he argues, “You can’t start from the conclusion and work backwards like they are doing in Boulder County.” Schlagel is one of several farmers that grow GM corn and sugar beets on the 1,000 acres of cropland managed by Boulder County Parks and Open Space.

“Farmers need a voice and they need to be at the table in these discussions.”

Bruce Schlagel, Paul’s brother, discussed his experiences with GM technology, specifically with Round Up Ready beets. RR sugar beets are resistant to glyphosate, a herbicide applied to crop fields during the production season that eliminates weeds. Before advances in GM technology, sugar beet farmers had to use an extremely potent herbicide, that was both expensive and potentially dangerous for human and environmental health. In comparison, glyphosate is a benign chemical that is much more environmentally and economically friendly. Eliminating GM technology would also eliminate the benefits of reduced herbicide use in sugar beet production.

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Photo Credit: Jennifer Schlagel

The drawback to glyphosate is the issue of weed resistance. However, with good stewardship and crop rotation, this can be managed. Sugar beets in particular, make an excellent addition to crop rotations in the area, especially in conjunction with much of the barley, wheat and corn that is grown.

Besides the issue of the current GM crop ban in Boulder County, farmers worry about the future snowball effect of regulations that threaten farming livelihood.

Bruce Schlagel compared it to a “humungous balloon with a small pinhole. It might take a long time, but in the end, you’ll have a flat balloon.” That flat balloon Schlagel mentions, is the loss of agricultural sustainability that GM technology has provided farmers.

Brett Markham, a multigenerational farmer in Larimer County, worries that rulings like this can have a ripple effect into surrounding counties.

“Having a farm in Larimer County and sitting on the Ag Advisory Board for Larmier County, I got to see the concerns of the farmers on that board and the impact that the Boulder County ruling would have on Larimer County. And a lot of guys are afraid that Larimer County is going to follow suit with Boulder, because Larimer County is becoming a more progressive county.”

The implications don’t stop there, Markham explains. “And if it goes to Larimer County, it can easily go down to Douglas and follow the Front Range down. Granted there’s not as much production ag down there like we have up here, but yeah it’s very concerning.”

Although the Boulder County GM crop ban only applies to farming on public lands, other areas in the U.S. have gone a step further. Places like Jackson County, Oregon and many counties in California have passed county-wide GM crop bans.

With the strict government regulation of GM technology and the science behind its use, why is there such a disconnect?

Dr. Pat Byrne, professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Colorado State University, deals with this disconnect often. Byrne has been part of a public outreach program since 2000, in an effort to educate the public on both the benefits and risks of GM crops. Byrne argues that the implications of GM crop bans such as the one in Boulder County can have far-reaching impacts globally. For example, places like Africa can benefit from growing GM disease resistant bananas, which has the potential to save many lives, both nutritionally and economically. However, opposition of GM crops from the U.S. and Europe has a trickle down effect, as documented in the film Food Evolution. The Uganda government banned the use of GM technology, thus jeopardizing the country’s food security.

Although Byrne is a proponent and expert on GM crops, there could be a drawback to the technology in some cases. He explains that the monopolization of seed companies could have a problematic effect when it comes to niche, regionally-adapted and specialized crops. As seed companies continue to target and improve certain crops and areas, Byrne hopes to not lose opportunities in other areas of the technology.

The monopolization of seed companies is a major concern for Boulder County, but for different reasons. Boulder County wants to transition to all non-GMO crops as well as transition all crops to organic production methods, as outlined in the BCPOS Cropland Policy:

“This recommendation fits well with another proposal also offered, namely making BCPOS lands available for local crop seed production, specifically non-GMO and organic seed to support a transitioning away from corporate dominated seed and agricultural input monopolies. This can defuse the arguments often heard from mainstream farmers that non-GMO seed is simply not available.”

The fact of the matter is that non-GMO sugar beet seed is not readily available. Over 95 percent of sugar beets utilize herbicide resistant GM technology, due to the significance of weed control in production. Larson mentions there is a non-GM sugar beet seed available in Europe, however the cost of obtaining that does not align with any sustainability efforts, both environmentally or economically.

The Boulder County GM crop phaseout will most likely push sugar beet farmers off county lands and onto private lands, which will disrupt crop rotations that are planned years in advance.

As mentioned in Mara Abbott’s article from the Daily Camera, the commissioners are due for an annual review of the GM crop phaseout timeline, along with addressing the withdrawal of SARII.

Matt Stermer, a CSU research associate and local agronomist who works alongside many Boulder County farmers, recommends that the next stakeholder event (such as the “annual check-in” due for 2018) should be held at an appropriate time and not during the farmer’s busiest time of year. Stakeholder feedback needs to be a priority and with planting season gearing up or well underway, it is imperative that farmers continue to show up and be a voice.

For this campaign, the digging hasn’t stopped.

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Photo Credit: Christina & Brett Markham

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