Sugar beets caught in genetically modified food fight

Candace Krebs

In recent weeks, after the courts decided the U.S. Department of Agriculture needed to complete a more comprehensive environment impact study before deregulating biotech sugar beets, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service acted promptly to ease concerns of sugar beet growers by outlining a series of steps.

“The steps we have outlined not only respond to the concerns of producers while complying with the court’s ruling, but also further USDA’s continuing efforts to enable coexistence among conventional, organic and biotechnology production systems,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

In addition to “expediting” completion of the environmental impact study required by the court — hopefully within two years — APHIS announced it intended to issue permits to sugar beet seed producers authorizing seedling production under strict permit conditions that would not allow flowering. According to an APHIS spokesman, APHIS issued four “non-flowering” permits with appropriate environmental and permitting documentation on Sept. 3.

The move didn’t sit well with environmental groups opposing biotech crops. An environmental coalition filed a lawsuit on Sept. 9 challenging the issuance of permits to sugar beet seed producers. APHIS is now in the process of carefully reviewing the lawsuit, according to the spokesman.

When it comes to future crops, sugar beet growers are in limbo. The food industry is worried that a shortage of sugar beet seed, and a potential shortage of farmers willing to grow it, will limit supplies and raise prices.

Half of American sugar comes from beets. Growers say genetically modified organism technology has restored economic viability to sugar beet production. They say it would be hard to go back to growing non-GMO varieties now, with questions about whether available seed, labor, expertise or equipment is adequate. 

“They picked the wrong crop to make an issue over GMOs,” said Colorado Ag Commissioner John Stulp. Sugar beets are unique in that they are a biennial crop, and they are typically harvested after the first year in production, before flowering. “They are not going to bloom or pollinate,” Stulp said. “There’s no reservoir of wild beets to fear crossing over into.”

The reality is that sugar beets are caught up in a larger debate over GMO crops and whether their increasingly widespread adoption imposes on the rights of farmers who choose to grow organic crops. Concerns stem from whether wind-blown pollen will contaminate weeds, wild plants or plants grown by organic farmers.

Blowing in the wind

Consumers are already consuming large quantities of foods grown using biotechnology.

According to the Economic Research Service, 93 percent of soybean acreage is in biotech varieties, as well as more than 70 percent of cotton and corn acres. Roundup Ready sugar beets made up 95 percent of planted acreage this year. Monsanto bought a wheat breeding company recently and expressed interest in eventually introducing GM hard red winter wheat. Genetically modified sorghum, potatoes and even salmon are also in development.

Doug Wiley, who raises livestock on a ranch near Boone, which has been in his family for 80 years, sells milk, meat and eggs in farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture programs. He said his customers want an alternative to the modern food system, including GMO-free products.

Wiley says the proliferation of biotechnology has made satisfying his customers more difficult. He is forced to buy molasses, which he uses to supplement his grass-based dairy cows, from South Africa. Molasses is derived from fodder beets.

“You can’t find certified organic molasses in the U.S. anymore,” said Wiley.

That’s a conflict when consumers want to support both organically grown and locally grown food. Meanwhile, Wiley is hoping to grow some of his own feed as an alternative. Even though cross-pollination is not a direct threat, he has to be careful about the source of all his feed and seed.

“Nobody grows beets around me,” said Wiley. “But whoever grows the seed for me, I have to know where they are at, and I may end up going farther (in distance) to get what I need.”

Jay Frost, who farms near Fountain, also sells specialty products at farmers markets and is considering getting his farm organically certified. When his neighbors choose to grow biotech crops, does it impede his rights to grow organic food?

To some extent, yes, says Frost. He gave the example of honey, which he and his two sons sell. Bees travel across property boundaries to collect pollen from blooms of many different crops. Chemical and pollen drift are other concerns.

However, the situation is not unlike other ways that neighbors’ decisions impact each other, Frost noted. When a neighboring landowner permits development on their land, it can affect surrounding farmers. (In the Fountain area, a lease was recently granted to LaFarge, a French cement company, to operate a gravel pit along Fountain Creek.) Development increases traffic and security issues.

“It becomes more expensive to operate,” Frost said of his own farm. ?

When it comes to GMO crops, a bigger concern that Frost has — and one shared by others — is allowing one dominant company (i.e. Monsanto) to gain monopoly control of the seed business.

“As an industry, we’re vulnerable to that,” Frost said. He points to financial problems other big American companies have had in recent years and wonders what would happen to agriculture if a large seed company suddenly went broke.

Speaking recently at the Land Institute, a Salina, Kan., research institution best known for focusing on the development of perennial wheat and other crops, Kent Whealy, the founder of Seed Savers Exchange, said corporations should not have the right to use genetics developed over many generations to create patented products.

Whealy calls the United Nation’s International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which gives multinational corporations access to seed banks for developing new products, “the largest corporate seed grab in the history of the world.”

“Individuals’ rights to save their own seeds have gradually been taken away,” Whealy said.

Many heirloom seeds are valuable because they have never been exposed to genetically modified material, and they are better adapted to farming without synthetic chemicals. According to the World Health Organization, it is difficult to detect traces of GMOs in food. The FDA doesn’t make a distinction between GMO and non-GMO products because they are both considered safe.

Appearing recently at a farm show in North Dakota, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said there has to be a better alternative than filing lawsuits to resolve the issue.

“We’ve got to figure out a strategy where we can co-exist, in which those who want to grow organically can do so and those who want to use biotechnology and increase productivity can do so,” said Vilsack. He also said a program is needed that would compensate farmers whose crops get contaminated.

Mitch Yergert, director of the plant industry division of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, agrees that sugar beet farmers are simply caught in the middle.

“We go so far and then a judge tries to put the genie back in the bottle,” said Yergert.