Food processors warn of potential sweetener shortages, spike in prices
By DAVE WILKINS
A USDA plan that would allow farmers to continue growing Roundup Ready sugar beets under strict regulation is receiving plenty of support -- and criticism.
More than 250 public comments concerning the plan had been filed as of Nov. 22. The deadline for submitting written comments on the plan is Dec. 6. USDA will release final restrictions after that.
Farmers wrote in to say that their use of the genetically engineered crop is not just a matter of convenience, but is also better for the environment because they use far fewer chemicals.
"Roundup Ready sugar beets have been very important to our farm. The genetically modified beets only require one or two pesticide applications per year and no cultivation," Rodd Beyer of Wheaton, Minn., said in written comments.
With Roundup Ready beets, Beyer makes far fewer trips across his fields, saving hundreds of gallons of fuel each year, he wrote.
The conventional practice of spraying "a cocktail of four or five chemicals several times," plus hiring laborers to clean up weeds not killed, "is not a scenario that I or any of my farmer neighbors want to return to," wrote grower Ted Propp Jr. of Worland, Wyo.
An estimated 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop was comprised of Roundup Ready varieties this year.
Some food companies also expressed concern that a ban on Roundup Ready sugar beets could lead to a domestic sugar shortage and higher food prices.
"Eliminating GMO sugar beets will cause irreparable harm to my business if sugar becomes in short supply causing significant increase in price," Daniel Abraham, of Savory Foods Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich., stated in written comments.
Ernest Barbella, of Quality Food Brands Inc. in Syosset, N.Y., said his company manufacturers baking mixes and dinner kits that are supplied to food banks and relief organizations such as Feed the Children.
"If there is a court enforced ban on the use of engineered sugar beets, it will result in a drastic increase in the cost of the food products we supply to charitable organizations and will also result in a shortage of food products that we can supply," he wrote.
Opponents of biotech crops, on the other hand, said that Roundup Ready sugar beets pose a hazard to the environment and human health and should not be allowed.
"It is my understanding that the Food and Drug Administration has taken a risky stance by allowing GMOs to be widely distributed in the food source without providing that they are safe. Instead, they are monitoring for ill effects after introduction, which puts our citizens and environment at risk," wrote Elissa Mendenhall, of Portland.
Sugar is widely distributed in the U.S. food supply and contributes to the nation's "sky-high" rate of diabetes, Mendenhall said. "Adding a modified organism resembling sugar could make this situation ten times worse," she wrote.
U.S. farmers have been growing Roundup Ready beets commercially since 2006, but a federal court ruling in August returned the crop to regulated status.
The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service released a plan earlier this month to allow farmers to plant the genetically modified crop again in 2011 under a closely monitored program.
Critics of the plan said plantings of Roundup Ready sugar beets should not be allowed until USDA completes a full environmental impact statement as ordered by the court. The full statement won't be ready until May 2012, the USDA has said.
Comments on the draft document may be mailed to Docket No. APHIS-2010-0047, Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS, Station 3A-03.8, 4700 River Road Unit 118, Riverdale, MD 20737-1238. To comment online, go to www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main?main=DocketDetail&d=APHIS-2010-0047