Posted: Thursday, November 18, 2010 9:00 AM
Dave Wilkins/Capital Press
Sugar beets are piled Oct. 1 near Jerome, Idaho. Harvest in the state wrapped up Nov. 15, with growers averaging about 30.2 tons per acre, down from 34.3 tons in 2009.
Report forecasts plant closures, higher prices for consumers, loss of beet farmers
By DAVE WILKINS
If farmers are denied access to Roundup Ready sugar beet varieties, sugar production will plummet, grocery stores will run short of sweetened products and some beet processors will probably not survive, according to a USDA analysis.
Planted acreage would plunge by an estimated 37 percent next year if sugar beet growers were forced to rely solely on conventional seed varieties, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said in a 336-page environmental assessment released earlier this month.
Food manufacturers could be forced to temporarily close some plants, and some sugar beet processing plants would likely be shuttered permanently.
"The severe (conventional) seed shortages forecast for 2011 are predicted to result in the closing of some beet sugar processing plants, and some companies may not survive after a one-year shutdown," USDA analysts said in the report.
Most of the sugar beet seed now on the market has been genetically modified to resist Roundup, the broad-spectrum herbicide manufactured by Monsanto. The USDA approved the genetically modified crop in 2005, and growers almost immediately began to report improved weed control and higher yields.
About 95 percent of the 1.1 million acres of sugar beets harvested this year in the United States were from Roundup Ready varieties.
If the industry had to rely solely on conventional seed, U.S. sugar supplies would sink to levels not seen in years, USDA analysts said. Wholesale sugar prices would skyrocket, increasing production costs for food and candy companies.
"Sugar users could expect a price increase of 24 percent," the USDA said in the report.
"It is unlikely that the sugar users could immediately replace the lost beet sugar available for sale, so some sugar-containing product factories would have to close temporarily, shorting the market for sugar containing products and consumer packaged products," USDA analysts said in the report. "The stocks on the grocery store shelves would likely be reduced due to the lack of supply and the higher cost of carrying sugar inventory."
A ruling by a federal judge in August returned Roundup Ready sugar beets to regulated status.
The USDA prepared the environmental assessment in response to a request from Monsanto and KWS SAAT AG for partial deregulation. The report explains why USDA chose the alternative that it did and outlines the grim consequences that would likely befall the industry if Roundup Ready beet plantings are banned.
The USDA has proposed that growers be allowed to plant the genetically modified crop again next year under strict monitoring.
The only available option for planting the entire 2011 sugar beet crop with conventional seed would be to import seed from Europe, the USDA said. Some European varieties might perform well in the Red River Valley, where plant disease pressures are relatively low.
It would be difficult to find imported varieties with enough resistance to cercospora, a fungal leafspot disease, for production in Michigan. No European varieties could provide the curly top resistance required for production in Idaho, the report said.