Battle lines drawn over GM sugar beets

Thousands of acres of Roundup Ready genetically modified sugar beets will be planted this spring with sugar from the GM crop entering the food supply. Consumer and organic groups are suing to block production of GM sugar beets.

In January, farmers, food safety advocates, and conservation groups filed suit in federal court challenging the deregulation of genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant Roundup Ready sugar beets by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Attorneys from the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice are representing plaintiffs Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and the Center for Food Safety in the lawsuit, which seeks a thorough assessment of environmental, health, and associated economic impacts of the deregulation as required by federal law.

The lawsuit was filed in the US District Court of Northern California. Last year, one of the court’s judges, Charles Breyer, issued an injunction blocking sales of Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds and ordered the US Department of Agriculture to conduct an environmental impact study of the crop.

Monsanto did not comment on the lawsuit, but company spokesman Darren Wallis told Capital Press, “Monsanto is confident in the US regulatory process.”

Contamination threat
This spring, commercial sugar beet farmers in the western US will begin planting Roundup Ready sugar beets, which are genetically modified to resist Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup. Sugar beet seeds are primarily grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, also an important seed growing area for crops closely related to sugar beets, such as organic chard and table beets. The wind-pollinated GM sugar beets will inevitably cross-pollinate with related crops being grown in close proximity, contaminating conventional sugar beets and organic chard and table beet crops.

“Contamination from genetically modified pollen is a major risk to both the conventional and organic seed farmers, who have a long history in the Willamette Valley,” said the Organic Seed Alliance’s Director of Advocacy, Matthew Dillon. “The economic impact of contamination affects not only these seed farmers, but the beet and chard farmers who rely on the genetic integrity of their varieties.”

GM sugar beets are wind pollinated, and there is a strong possibility that pollen from Roundup Ready sugar beets could contaminate non-GM sugar beets and important food crops such as chard, and red and yellow beets (or “table beets”). Such biological contamination would also be devastating to organic farmers, who face debilitating market losses if their crops are contaminated by a GM variety. Contamination also reduces the ability of conventional farmers to decide what to grow, and limits consumer choice of natural foods.

95% of Idaho production will be GM
According to John Schorr, agriculture manager for Amalgamated Sugar, 95% of Idaho’s sugar beet production will be Roundup Ready. Based on last year’s production of 167,000 acres of sugar beets, Idaho farmers will plant 150,000 acres of GM sugar beets this year.

Nationwide, US farmers grow about 1.3 million acres of sugar beets in 12 states primarily in the Red River Valley (western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota), Pacific Northwest, Great Plains, and Great Lakes regions.

The USDA “de-regulated” Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2005. The agency had originally de-regulated RR sugar beets in 1999, but candy manufacturers refused to use sugar from GM plants due to consumer concerns, and the beets never took off.

GM sugar in the food supply unlabeled
Sugar beets account for slightly more than half of US sugar production; the rest is produced using sugarcane. Americans consume about 10 million tons of refined sugar each year and about 12 tons of corn sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup. With the introduction of GM sugar beets, the two leading sweeteners consumed in the US will now be derived from GM corn and sugar beets.

Sugar produced by GM sugar beets may be included in products ranging from candy to breakfast cereal to bread. None of those products, as well as those containing corn syrup from GM corn, will require labeling to indicate that the products contain ingredients derived from GM sugar beets or corn.

“As a consumer, I’m very concerned about genetically-engineered sugar making its way into the products I eat, as well as genetic contamination of conventional and organically grown varieties of table beets and chard,” said the Sierra Club’s Neil Carman.

Problems for non-GMO and organic farmers, food manufacturers
According to Tom Stearns, President of High Mowing Organic Seeds, “the issue of releasing GMO crops without serious research or oversight risks the security of our food supply and the economic viability of our nation’s non-GMO and organic farmers.”

GM sugar beets could also cause problems for companies exporting food products to Europe, says Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology. “EU law stipulates that sugar derived from GM beets would have to be labeled as containing genetically modified ingredients. Given the current purchasing guidelines by European importers, any US export that contains sugar would not be accepted unless the manufacturer implements a costly traceability program to verify that no GM sugar beets were used,” he says.

In addition to the risk of crop contamination, scientific studies have shown that applications of Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide, increase significantly when Roundup Ready crops are grown. Increased use of this herbicide is instrumental in the creation of Roundup-resistant “super weeds.”

“Contrary to the industry’s mantra that these plants reduce chemical use, studies have shown that herbicide use actually increases with the planting of Roundup Ready crops,” said Kevin Golden, of the Center for Food Safety. “Just as overuse of antibiotics eventually breeds drug resistant bacteria, overuse of Roundup eventually breeds Roundup-resistant weeds. When that happens, farmers are forced to rely on even more toxic herbicides to control those weeds.”

Crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand herbicides made up 81% of the GE crops planted globally in 2006. 99% of the herbicide tolerant crops grown in the U.S. are “Roundup Ready.” According to an independent analysis of USDA data by former Board of Agriculture Chair of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Charles Benbrook, GE crops increased herbicide use in the U.S. by 122 million pounds – a 15-fold increase – between 1994 (when GE herbicide-tolerant crops were introduced) to 2004.

Weed resistance problems
“The law requires the government to take a hard look at the impact that deregulating Roundup Ready sugar beets will have on human health, agriculture and the environment,” said Greg Loarie of Earthjustice. “The government cannot simply ignore the fact that deregulation will harm organic farmers and consumers, and exacerbate the growing epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds.”

These herbicide-resistant weeds have spread rapidly over the past seven years, and experts agree that their proliferation is directly linked to the introduction of Roundup Ready crops, including soybeans, cotton and corn. As recently as 2000, there were no documented cases of weeds resistant to glyphosate in the Corn Belt. Today, marestail, common and giant ragweed, waterhemp, and Palmer pigweed are weeds with confirmed resistance to glyphosate. Cocklebur, lambsquarters, morning glory, velvetleaf, and others are also proving tougher to kill. In total, Roundup-resistant weeds have been reported on 2.4 million acres of U.S. cropland.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report March 2008.