Famuer Rasmussen Jr. and five other farmers filed what they thought was a routine request to grow genetically modified sugar beets on public land in Colorado's Boulder County. The county already had allowed genetically altered corn.
But the farmers got an earful.
Complaints from residents and organic food activists concerned about the crops' safety and local businesses hoping to maintain Boulder as a center for natural and organic products prompted county commissioners to reassess their genetically modified crops policy.
"This went from a campfire to a raging wildfire," the Rasmussen, 45, said of the reaction to the six farmers' December request.
While farmers like Rasmussen already grow genetically modified sugar beets on private land, the prospect of devoting more county-owned land to the new crops was too much for opponents.
Aurora Organic Dairy Chairman Mark Retzloff opposed the altered corn six years ago, but said a lack of public awareness may have led the county to allow it.
"Many of us decided this time we needed to be proactive," he said. "Last time, it wasn't made an issue to the public."
The protests are part of the growing battles over genetically modified organisms, or GMO. At issue in Boulder County is Monsanto Corp.'s Roundup Ready sugar beets, which Rasmussen wants to grow on land leased from the county.
About 95 percent of the 1.15 million acres of sugar beets planted nationwide have been bred to resist the weed killer Roundup, also made by Monsanto, according to the American Sugarbeet Growers Association. The beets were widely commercially used for the first time last year.
Communities like Mendocino County in California, spurred by voters, have banned genetically modified organisms, but Boulder is the only city with such strong opposition to Roundup Ready sugar beets, said Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the growers association.
"This is all theater for opposition to biotech," Markwart said.
In September, a federal judge in San Francisco overturned regulatory approval of Roundup Ready sugar beets and ordered a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency to study their environmental impact after the Port Townsend, Wash.-based Organic Seed Alliance and others filed a lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White found the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service violated environmental law by failing to take a hard look at whether the beets could share their genes with other crops through cross-pollination. The agency is reviewing the ruling.
Monsanto said the ruling didn't question the safety to consumers of Roundup Ready crops.
Organic food interests plan to ask White at an Oct. 30 hearing to bar new plantings of the crop, but Boulder County commissioners are thinking beyond sugar beets.
"Our questions are bigger," county commissioner Ben Pearlman said. "Do we allow GMO at all? If so, under what circumstances and what do we want grown?"
The six farmers hoping to grow Roundup Ready sugar beets lease about 4,000 irrigated acres, representing almost half the county's agricultural lease revenue, according to county staff.
The farmers' request generated so much protest because it involves public land, said Steven Hoffman, managing director of the Boulder-based national Organic Center. Hoffman said there's about $3 billion in annual revenues from natural and organic products companies like herbal tea manufacturer Celestial Seasonings in the Boulder area.
"We do not want the human populace to be a science experiment," Hoffman said.
Critics' concerns include uncertainty about long-term health and environmental effects.
But Markwart, a co-chair of the Sugar Industry Biotech Council, said it takes high temperatures and pressure to diffuse sugar out of a sugar beet, and in the end, the sugar from Roundup Ready beets and conventional ones is essentially the same, Markwart said.
Worries about cross-pollination are minimal, Rasmussen said, because sugar beets generally are harvested before they produce seeds or pollen.
Local farmers say they've been waiting for Roundup Ready sugar beets for decades, after having to yank rope-like weeds from sugar beet fields by hand.
"When we were kids, I remember pulling weeds. Sometimes we were glad to go back to school," joked 54-year-old Boulder County farmer Paul Schlagel, whose family is in its 100th year of harvesting sugar beets.
Though farmers might pay Monsanto $50 an acre on technology fees for Roundup Ready beets, they can save on herbicide and labor while boosting yields, Schlagel said.
"To us, it's a no-brainer," he said. "You use less chemicals, less fuel."
County commissioners now hope to craft a new policy for any GMO in time for the 2011 growing season.
"We want to make sure our open space land is farmed to help us deal with weeds and overall stewardship of the land," Pearlman said. "We also want management of open space land to be consistent with our environmental stewardship values, which we hold close to our hearts."