Beet seed stock a mystery
Idaho growers still have no information about availability of conventional seed
By DAVE WILKINS
Sugar beet growers in Idaho and Eastern Oregon are still hoping that USDA will allow them to grow Roundup Ready beets again next year.
It's still unclear, however, how much conventional beet seed would be available if ongoing litigation prevents plantings of the genetically modified crop next spring.
A ruling by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White in August returned Roundup Ready sugar beets to regulated status.
Farmers won't be allowed to grow them unless the USDA grants the industry's request for a partial deregulation or other interim measures.
The ruling has put growers in a precarious situation. An estimated 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop was comprised of Roundup Ready varieties this year, and there is a limited amount of conventional seed available.
Relatively little conventional seed has been produced by seed companies in recent years.
In 2009, only two growers produced conventional seed for the West Coast Beet Seed Co., according to a court document filed this summer by Monsanto.
In the past two seasons, Betaseed has processed only one variety of conventional seed and only a single lot of that variety in 2009, according to the same document.
Mike Kelly, a Western Idaho representative for seed producer Syngenta, said he couldn't comment on the availability of conventional seed because of the "sensitive nature" of the issue.
Officials at the Holly Hybrids office in Sheridan, Wyo., did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
Still, there is believed to be some conventional seed stocks in storage from previous seasons.
SES Vanderhave, another seed company, has estimated that it will have enough conventional seed in stock to cover the Red River Valley if needed.
Nick Revier, commercial sales manager for SES Vanderhave in Fargo, N.D, said he believes the company has enough conventional seed in stock to cover its Roundup Ready orders in the region if genetically modified plantings aren't allowed next year.
Much of the conventional seed that the company has in stock is from 2008, back when the industry made the move to Roundup Ready varieties, he said.
"The industry switched to Roundup Ready varieties faster than we anticipated, so we still have some conventional seed in storage," he said.
Revier said his impression from talking with others in the industry is that conventional seed inventories aren't as much of an issue for growers in Minnesota and North Dakota as it is for growers in the West.
"We should be OK," he said -- even if Roundup Ready beets are banned.
No news in Idaho
Leaders of the Snake River Sugar Co., the grower-owned cooperative that controls The Amalgamated Sugar Co., say they aren't sure how much conventional seed would be available to growers in Idaho and Eastern Oregon.
While seed companies have indicated there isn't enough conventional seed for a full planting in Western growing regions, co-op officials said they don't know exactly how short they would be.
"We simply don't have any additional information at this point," co-op chairman Duane Grant said.
Part of the problem in determining seed availability is that varieties are developed with a number of different traits targeted for specific growing regions, Grant said.
A variety without curly top resistance might be suitable where leafhoppers, the vector that spreads the disease, aren't present. But the same variety planted in an area with leafhoppers could result in the crop being wiped out, Grant said.
"It's a little bit of a wasted effort to really drill down to determine how much (conventional seed) is available for what area until we know where the process is going to take us in the next 30 to 60 days," he said.
The co-op is taking USDA at its word that it will produce a plan before the end of the year that would allow growers to plant Roundup Ready varieties in 2011, Grant said.
"We are hopeful that USDA ... can find a way to provide the opportunity for a full planting next year of viable and competitive seed, but that remains to be seen," he said.
Sugar supply at risk
If that doesn't happen, the U.S. sugar market will be in for a big shock, according to industry analysts.
U.S. sugar production would be cut by about 20 percent if growers are restricted to planting only conventional sugar beet seed next year, an analysis by a USDA economist indicates.
Such a reduction would result in severe shortages and an "explosive situation," in the market, said industry analyst Frank Jenkins of the Jenkins Sugar Group.
"The U.S. market would be absolutely starved for sugar," Jenkins said in an interview.
Market participants still seem to believe that the USDA will come through with a plan allowing growers to plant Roundup Ready beets again next year, Jenkins said.
"The market is not pricing in a situation where those GMO seeds won't be allowed to be planted next spring," he said.
The USDA would have to allow substantially more sugar imports than they have in recent years if growers can't plant Roundup Ready beets next year, Jenkins said.
Daniel Colacicco, a USDA economist with the agency's dairy and sweetener analysis group, estimated in a court document filed earlier this year that a ban on Roundup Ready plantings would reduce sugar beet production by 1.6 million tons.
Sugar beets account for about 57 percent of total U.S. sugar production. Because nearly all growers have switched to Roundup Ready varieties, a ban would have a huge impact, Colacicco said in an interview.
"If this happens, it's bad," he said. "The world is already tight of sugar."