ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Candy makers seem to want their products to be sweet and also clean and green. Some have decided to stop buying genetically modified ingredients like sugar because many consumers don't trust GMOs. This is causing an unprecedented shift in the market for sugar. Sugar beet farmers are having trouble selling their product. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Traditionally, about half of the sweetness in your pastries and chocolate came from a beet, a sugar beet. And about eight years ago, nearly all the farmers who grow those beets decided to shift over to genetically modified beets that made it easier for them to get rid of their weeds. They really did not expect any problems. Here's David Berg, president of the American Crystal Sugar Company in Moorhead, Minn., talking about that change back in 2008.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DAVID BERG: Most of our buyers - the people who buy the sugar for industrial uses as an ingredient in cereals and candies and baked goods and things like that - they've not expressed great concerns about it. We have not come across any specific place where we're under any restraints that we can't see our sugar.
CHARLES: But just in the past two years, things have really changed. More and more food companies have decided to label their products as non-GMO, and because practically all sugar beets in the U.S. are now genetically modified, those companies now need to get their sugar from the farmers who grow sugarcane in Florida, Louisiana or outside the U.S. There isn't any genetically modified sugarcane. Deborah Arcoleo is director of product transparency at The Hershey Company.
DEBORAH ARCOLEO: We started reformulating Hershey's Kisses, Hershey's Milk Chocolate and Hershey's Milk Chocolate with Almonds to move from beet sugar to cane sugar. And that's complete, and now we're looking to do that across the rest of our portfolio to the extent that we can.
CHARLES: That has been a jolt for the American Crystal Sugar Company in Minnesota. It's mainly a sugar beet operation. Andrew Beyer, who grows sugar beets near Kent, Minn., went to the company's annual meeting earlier this year and was shocked to hear just how many of American Crystal's customers - those pastry and chocolate companies - are now moving away from sugar beets.
ANDREW BEYER: They were talking, like, a third or up to a half of them were converting their systems to strictly non-GMO.
CHARLES: What was the reaction you heard among the farmers when you hear this?
BEYER: Pretty concerned about it.
CHARLES: Because the result has been a remarkable change in the American sugar market. Sugar used to be just sugar wherever it came from. But Michael McConnell, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says sugar traders are increasingly treating bulk cane sugar and beet sugar as two different commodities with different prices.
MICHAEL MCCONNELL: The current price for beet sugar is about three to five cents below the price for cane sugar right now on the spot market.
CHARLES: That means buyers are paying 10 to 15 percent more for cane sugar. There's a pile of beet sugar still looking for buyers while there's actually a shortage of cane sugar. It's so bad that cane sugar users like candy companies are asking the USDA to allow more foreign cane sugar into the country.
Andrew Beyer says sugar beet farmers like him are thinking about going back to growing non-GMO beets. They couldn't do it quickly. Right now there's not enough non-GMO seed to go around, and they really would prefer not to do it.
Right now with sugar beets that have been genetically modified to tolerate the herbicide Roundup, farmers can kill their weeds by spraying Roundup just a few times each summer. Going back to conventional varieties would mean going back to spraying their crop every 10 days or so with what Andrew Beyer calls a witch's brew of five or six different weed killers.
BEYER: The chemicals we used to put on the beets in conventional days were so much harsher for the guy applying them and the environment. You know, to me, it's insane to think that a non-GMO beet is going to be better for the environment, the world or the consumer.
CHARLES: But he says we'll do it if we have to. We'll do what our customers want. Dan Charles, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.