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Beet growers divine future

Organizers face confusion over what will be legal in future


Capital Press

Organizers of the Snake River Sugar Beet Conference faced a special challenge in planning the event scheduled Jan. 13-14 in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Would the courts and federal regulators allow growers to plant Roundup Ready beets again in 2011?

They didn't know. So organizers had to put together a program that would speak to both conventional and biotech beet production.

The conference on the College of Southern Idaho campus will focus on economics, agronomy and harvest technologies that will benefit growers whether they are cleared to plant Roundup Ready beets or not.

"That is the tack we're taking -- to be prepared for whichever way it goes," said Don Morishita, a University of Idaho weed scientist and an organizer of the annual event. Reacting to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, a federal judge in August blocked commercial planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets and returned the crop to regulated status.

Now the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service must decide whether and under what conditions Roundup Ready sugar beet production will be allowed.

In early November the agency proposed three possible options, two of which would allow continued production of Roundup Ready beets under special conditions. A third option would prohibit any commercial planting.

The agency is reviewing more than 3,800 public comments and is expected to make a decision in late December or early January.

"I'm hoping that a decision will be made before the conference and growers will be allowed to plant Roundup Ready beets again next year," Morishita said.

In the meantime, conference organizers are prepared to give growers a refresher course in conventional weed control management.

Tough weeds such as lambs-quarters and kochia can quickly overtake a beet field if rain or other factors delay herbicide applications in a conventional system, Morishita said.

"That was one of the biggest issues with conventional beet varieties -- the challenge of making herbicide applications in a timely manner," he said.

The other concern is the availability of conventional herbicides. Chemical companies stopped making many of the herbicides used on conventional sugar beet fields after growers switched to Roundup Ready varieties about three years ago.

Growers attending the annual conference the past few years have extolled the benefits of Roundup Ready beets, including improved weed control and higher yields. An estimated 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop was planted to Roundup Ready varieties in 2010.

Morishita said he believes Roundup Ready beets are safe for the environment, humans and animals. He bases that on his own research and additional reading.

He also acknowledges that the long-term effects on the environment and potential toxicological effects on humans and other animals are unknown. But the same is true of many things that people use in their daily lives such as medications and cell phones, Morishita said.

"It's really easy to say that you don't want to see these biotech crops grown, that they're not safe, if you don't grow them yourself and you're not involved in the industry," he said.

The opening general session of this year's conference will feature business consultant Mary Webb and GK Technology agronomist and harvesting technology expert Kelly Sharpe.

Webb has worked extensively with grower-owned cooperatives like the Snake River Sugar Co-op. She will talk about the dynamics of cooperatives and factors that make them successful.

Sharpe will review how growers can adjust their harvest equipment to reduce damage to the crop and reduce losses of undersized beets.

Breakout sessions will feature the latest strategies for disease, insect and weed control in both conventional and Roundup Ready sugar beets.

For more information about the conference and registration forms, contact Tamie Keeth at tkeeth@uidaho.edu or 208-736-3623.


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