Genetically Engineering the Sweet Stuff American farmers want to change the way they make sugar. This spring, a huge number of growers plan to switch to genetically modified sugar beets. But some groups have asked a federal court to stop them.

Genetically Engineering the Sweet Stuff

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Attention all of you with a sweet tooth. American farmers want to change the way they make sugar. You know about sugar cane, but in fact half of all sugar in the U.S. 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.

Groups that oppose genetically modified food have asked a federal court to stop them. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES: The American Crystal Sugar Company factory in Moorhead, Minnesota, is a steaming, belching, coal-burning monster.


CHARLES: 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'd lose their sugar.


CHARLES: Another load of beets arrives. These are homely vegetables. They look like very fat, white carrots.

DAVID BERG: There's about 25 tons per truckload.

CHARLES: David Berg, the CEO of American Crystal Sugar, leads the way through the factory, following the trail of beets.

They get sliced into thin strips and fed into a gigantic steel drum filled with hot water.

BERG: This is where the actual process of extracting the sugar. It starts right here.

CHARLES: In the end, you get sugar water, boiled down to the point where it's so thick 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.

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

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

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

ALAN DEXTER: This is a very big deal. And it's - it makes weed control much, much easier.

CHARLES: Alan Dexter, a weed scientist at North Dakota State University is meeting with farmers at a hotel in Fargo, North Dakota, talking about this new weapon in the war on weeds.

DEXTER: Typically we've been using mixtures of four herbicides, applied four times, at a seven-day interval. It's very complicated. And the Roundup is a lot easier and a lot more reliable.

CHARLES: So what have you been hearing from farmers is?

DEXTER: Oh, farmers are going to adopt it as rapidly as they can.

CHARLES: 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 - held back.

American Crystal CEO, David Berg.

BERG: Five years ago, 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 - the final consumers - about biotech agriculture. Since that time, the resistance has just diminished. People have become more comfortable with it.

CHARLES: Not everybody, though, there's Kevin Golden, for instance, from the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco

KEVIN GOLDEN: A lot of the American public simply disagrees with the idea of genetically engineering life forms. 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, sort of, morally and environmentally.

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

BLOCK: part Roundup Ready sugar beet, part Swiss chard.

GOLDEN: 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.

CHARLES: 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 now are waiting for a word from the court. Planting time arrives in just a couple of months.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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