GMO beets threaten native pollinators
In July, the Boulder County Commissioners will be considering whether to allow genetically modified sugar beets to be grown on Boulder County Open Space. You'll hear arguments pro and con on this decision but one major consideration has yet to be addressed.
According to research compiled by the staff of the commissioners, GMO beets will diminish the population of native pollinators on beet acreage. At a time when we are losing honeybees to colony collapse disorder, wild bees may become all we have for fruit and vegetable pollination. If you grow strawberries, apples, tomatoes, peppers, squash -- nearly any fruit or vegetable -- you are dependent upon pollinators for a harvest.
Flowering plants, which include vegetables, fruits and nut trees, evolved with insect pollinators. This relationship is so ancient and crucial that it is the basis for nearly all our agriculture. Except for sugar beets and corn. Sugar beets are grown only for the root. Corn is a grass, which is wind pollinated. Neither requires an insect. The distinction is what pits one kind of farmer against another. And the decision that the commissioners must make will decide which farmer wins and which farmer loses.
This is critical because the decision is about how our public lands are cared for. We've set aside taxpayer money for our county open space to create buffers between cities. But now we must create a stewardship program that protects our local agricultural potential for the future. Our few pollinators are under such stress that disregarding the possibility that they may disappear is alarming.
Pollinators can disappear in the blink of an eye. One already has. According to Whitney Cranshaw, entomologist at Colorado State University, the European paper wasp moved into the urban corridor of Colorado and killed most of the butterflies and moths within a short period of time. A few white European cabbage moths hover over my broccoli. But the exquisite black-swallowtail butterfly that once emerged from parsley clumps is nowhere to be seen. And while butterflies pollinate only slightly, large moths are among our best pollinators. They are gone.
Talk to keepers of honeybees and they will tell you how difficult it is to keep their bees alive. We have backyard beekeepers who try to shelter their bees from pesticides and provide high-nectar flowers for them. But each year is a struggle.
Our last hope is with wild native bees. When Roundup herbicide is sprayed on the beet fields, it kills any native plant that serves as a nectar species for wild bees. There's not a square inch of land or plant that can supply habitat or food for native pollinators. This information is not opinion. It is stated in the research available to our commissioners and their staff. Along with the killing of amphibians and aquatic life, the consequences of Roundup are well documented.
There is a better way. We could help GMO farmers transition to crops that are profitable and less stressful to our pollinators. Hay is one crop that is grown throughout our county. So is alfalfa. Neither requires a huge labor force for cultivation.
But the real question is what kind of local farming will be reasonable for our future. We have new, energetic vegetable and fruit growers who sell at farmers markets. And the waiting list for would-be gardeners to work a community garden patch gets longer each year. Garden groups are fostering backyard gardeners, too.
It makes sense that in a dense urban setting the most appropriate farming will be small fruit and vegetable growers. These small-acreage growers can take advantage of a nearby market. Urban farming is unsuitable for the giant GMO commodities of corn and sugar beets. But our new farmers and gardeners will need a healthy and prolific population of pollinating insects to continue the upsurge in food production.
We're at a crossroads. Over 1,500 acres of Boulder County open space -- public land owned by taxpayers -- are devoted to genetically modified corn. Pollinators cannot live on those acres, either. We can continue to lose the vital link between our food and its essential pollinators. Or we could consider turning much more land over to native plants and appropriate host plants for our wild pollinators. But we can't wait forever. Time is running out.
Niki Hayden lives in Boulder and is a backyard gardener.