Genetically Engineering the Sweet Stuff

Sugar beet plant and field

Farmers across the U.S. hope to plant genetically modified sugar beets this spring. Richard Hamilton Smith/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Hamilton Smith/Corbis
Bags of sugar i i

The final product: table sugar produced from sugar beets. Dan Charles hide caption

itoggle caption Dan Charles
Bags of sugar

The final product: table sugar produced from sugar beets.

Dan Charles

You have probably heard of sugar cane. But half of all sugar in the United States comes right out of the ground — from sugar beets. And this spring, thousands of American farmers are hoping to plant sugar beets that have been genetically engineered.

The American Crystal Sugar factory in Moorhead, Minn., which processes sugar beets into the granular sucrose we know, is a steaming, belching, coal-burning monster. On the day I visited, it was 11 degrees below zero and blowing hard. But for sugar beets, that's perfect. In this part of the country, millions of tons of beets sit all winter long in enormous open-air piles. And they have to stay frozen; otherwise, they'll rot.

The homely vegetables arrive in 25-ton truckloads. They look like very fat, white carrots. Following the trail of beets, David Berg, the CEO of American Crystal Sugar, leads the way through the factory.

First the beets are washed. They're then sliced into thin strips and fed into a gigantic steel drum filled with hot water, where the actual process of extracting the sugar begins. You get sugar water, boiled down to the point where it's so thick that it turns into a mass of sugar crystals.

And at the other end of the factory, a stream of dry white sugar fills an endless parade of five- and 10-pound bags.

"The sad truth is, the 10-pound bags aren't very popular anymore because people don't bake at home as much as they used to," Berg says.

The New Sugar Beet

The real sugar factories, though, are silent ones: green, leafy beet plants that turn sunlight into sucrose.

The new sugar beet that farmers here in North Dakota want to plant has a gene inserted into it that lets the plant withstand Roundup, the popular chemical weedkiller. Farmers who plant these sugar beets can spray Roundup on their fields and kill the weeds, while the sugar beet plants survive.

Alan Dexter, a weed scientist at North Dakota State University, met a group of farmers last week at a hotel in Fargo, N.D., to talk about this new weapon in the war on weeds.

"This is a very big deal," Dexter says. "Typically we've been using mixtures of four herbicides, applied four times, at a seven-day interval. It's very complicated. Roundup is a lot easier and a lot more reliable... Farmers are going to adopt it as rapidly as they can."

Actually, they have been waiting years for these beets. Roundup resistant soybeans, cotton and corn have been on the market for almost a decade, and government regulators approved so-called Roundup Ready sugar beets back in 1998. But until now, the sugar beet industry — including American Crystal — has held back.

"Five years ago, my impression was, there was some very serious customer concern — at the industrial customer level, the people we sell the sugar to, and certainly at the consumer level... about biotech agriculture," American Crystal's CEO David Berg says. "Since that time, the resistance has just diminished. People have become more comfortable with it."

Not everybody, though.

"A lot of the American public simply disagrees with the idea of genetically engineering life forms," says Kevin Golden at the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco. "It's an invasive technology, where you're transporting foreign genes into the genome of a plant, using a viral vector, and a lot of people think that's just wrong, morally and environmentally."

Last month, Golden's group and several others filed a lawsuit to stop the new sugar beets.

They say the U.S. Department of Agriculture violated the law when it approved these beets, because it didn't look carefully enough at several environmental risks. For instance, sugar beet seeds are harvested in the same part of Oregon as ordinary table beets and Swiss chard. And all those plants are so similar that they can pollinate each other.

So, Golden says, gardeners could find themselves growing the occasional hybrid: part Roundup Ready sugar beet, part Swiss chard.

"It may look like chard, it may look like table beets, but in fact it will have the Roundup Ready property in it, or at least the Roundup Ready gene," Golden says.

Accidental cross pollination between these crops was always possible, but Golden says it now could be a problem for organic farmers who aren't supposed to use any genetically engineered seed.

A similar lawsuit, using similar arguments, stopped the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa last year.

Sugar beet farmers are now awaiting word from the court. Planting time arrives in just a couple of months.

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