Posted: Thursday, November 12, 2009 12:00 PM
Growers may struggle to convert back to conventional sugar beets
By DAVE WILKINS
Farmers still hope to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets next year, but if a federal judge bans their use there might be enough conventional beet seed stockpiled in the United States to get by for a year.
"As I understand it, there is likely to be enough seed to plant all or nearly all of the sugar beet acres in the U.S. next year," said Jeff Stachler, a North Dakota State University Extension agronomist who specializes in sugar beets.
It would be a stretch, and growers might not have access to varieties that are best suited for their particular area, he said.
"You might not have the best agronomic varieties for your farm to maximize yield," Stachler said.
Only seed companies know exactly how much conventional beet seed is available, and they consider it proprietary information, industry officials said. Calls to company representatives at Betaseed and Syngenta were not returned.
But the information is likely to be revealed during the course of the federal court case as the industry makes the argument that Roundup Ready varieties should be kept.
In September, Judge Jeffrey White ruled that the USDA failed to produce an environmental impact statement when it deregulated the genetically modified seed. A hearing is scheduled Dec. 4 to begin the process that will decide whether existing seed can be used while the USDA completes the document.
If growers are forced to go back to conventional sugar beets, it's not likely to be a smooth transition. Conventional herbicides could be in short supply. The labor crews that once weeded beet fields have moved on since the advent of Roundup Ready varieties.
"Getting people back in to hoe beets would be very, very difficult," said Dwight Horsch, who farms near Aberdeen, Idaho.
"I think we're all pressing forward, counting on Roundup Ready seed for next year," he said.
Roundup Ready technology has provided a huge advance in weed control, resulting in higher sugar beet yields, industry officials said.
Many farmers might decide to switch to other crops if they can't grow genetically modified beets.
"I think there may be some hesitation on the part of growers to go back to using conventional herbicides," said Don Morishita, a University of Idaho Extension weed scientist. "The weed control that they've gotten with Roundup and Roundup tank mixes has been outstanding."
A 2004 study by the University of Idaho looked at the economic impacts if the sugar beet industry were ever to disappear in Idaho.
The loss of the industry would cost the state $721 million in gross sales, $163 million in value-added, 3,414 jobs, $111 million in earnings and $12 million in indirect business taxes, the study found.
So far, the legal battle surrounding Roundup Ready beets doesn't appear to have soured growers' appetite for the crop.
"We are hearing that there is a very, very high demand for sugar beet acres," said Vic Jaro, president and CEO of Boise-based Amalgamated Sugar Co. "We haven't heard that there is any less demand because of this (court case)."