Genetically modified sugar beets make up 95 percent of the crop in the U.S. Farmers who grow sugar beets say there isn't enough conventional sugar beet seed around anymore, and they no longer have the field equipment necessary to clear weeds from their fields.
A federal judge says sugar beet farmers can't plant genetically engineered varieties next year, and those farmers, who produce half of America's sugar, now are in a bind. Many of them say they cannot go back to the way they used to work because they don't own those tools anymore and there aren't enough conventional seeds to go around.
The genetically engineered sugar beets, called "Roundup Ready" beets, can survive doses of the herbicide Roundup. That makes it easier for farmers to control weeds — they simply spray Roundup (or chemically equivalent herbicides) over their fields, and the weeds die while sugar beet plants thrive.
Almost half of sugar consumed in the U.S. comes from sugar beets. But legal action facing the USDA may prevent genetically modified sugar beets from being grown in the U.S., which would severely curtail sugar output.
Almost half of sugar consumed in the U.S. comes from sugar beets. But legal action facing the USDA may prevent genetically modified sugar beets from being grown in the U.S., which would severely curtail sugar output. iStockphoto.com
When sugar beet growers switched to the new varieties two years ago, they did not expect legal problems. Roundup Ready soybeans and corn, approved a decade earlier, cover millions of acres of American farmland, and those crops had received exactly the same government approval.
But in recent years, environmental lawyers such as George Kimbrell, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Food Safety, have rolled out a new line of legal attack against genetically engineered foods.
"The concern is the farmers' loss of their fundamental right to choose the crop of their choice," Kimbrell says.
Kimbrell argues that an organic farmer might lose that choice, for instance, if another farmer across the road grows genetically engineered versions of the same crop. When the crops flower, they will cross-pollinate, and the organic farmer may have a problem. "If you're marketing your product as organic, or non-GMO [genetically modified organism], and it's contaminated, you can lose your markets; you can lose your certification," Kimbrell says.
Can't Go Back
Kimbrell's group, along with some organic seed producers, sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture, arguing that the USDA did not look carefully enough at the potential impact of cross-pollination before it approved genetically engineered sugar beets.
A federal judge agreed. In August, he shocked the sugar beet industry by revoking approval of the beets until the USDA carries out an environmental impact study.
That could take a couple of years. So unless there's a new legal twist, farmers will go back to planting conventional beets next spring.
Some of them, though, say they simply cannot. Duane Grant, chairman of the Snake River Sugar Co. in Idaho, says the difficulties start with the most basic necessity: seeds.
"The seed companies are telling our company that we don't have enough to plant a full crop," he says.
In addition, it won't be easy to go back to the old ways of killing weeds. The teams of migrant workers who chopped out weeds in the old days are no longer available. Grant says he has discarded the special equipment that he once used to spray a cocktail of different chemicals, every week or so, down the rows of young beet plants.
"I simply do not have the expertise on my staff to apply conventional herbicides today," he says. "We'd have to go back to a training process. I'd have to purchase new sprayers, new cultivators. We're in a bit of a box, really."
Grant is hoping and even expecting the USDA to rescue him, and there is speculation that the agency may issue some sort of interim approval for a Roundup Ready crop next spring. Agency officials, however, declined to comment.
Growers On Notice
Two weeks ago, the USDA announced that it would allow sugar beet seed companies to grow genetically engineered seedlings this fall, but environmental groups immediately sued to block that approval. The case is still pending.
Kimbrell doesn't have much sympathy for the farmers.
"They've been on notice since we filed our complaint that this was a likely result of the case — so for over two years now," he says. "So any crying wolf now is not in good faith."
Sugar beet growers in Idaho, such as Grant, may be in the worst situation. They fell hardest for genetically engineered beets because they have some of the most severe weed problems. Farmers in other areas, such as the Red River valley of North Dakota and Minnesota, say they probably could harvest a conventional crop next year. But they warn that it would be a smaller harvest, and they caution that there may be sugar shortages and higher prices down the road.