Billions in sales, hundreds of jobs hang on decision
By DAVE WILKINS
Sugar industry officials say a ban on genetically modified beets would result in severe seed shortages in some areas and billions of dollars in losses -- lost crops, lost jobs, lost farm equipment sales and lost tax revenue.
Federal judge Jeffrey White, in California, ruled earlier this year that the USDA had failed to adequately assess the environmental impacts of Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beets, a genetically modified crop.
What White does next may have far-reaching consequences in rural communities in about 11 states where sugar beets are grown.
The case is in the remedy phase, and sugar beet growers across the country worry that the "remedy" could be hard to swallow.
The judge has set a hearing date for June, so it's possible that the 2010 beet crop will be planted before a ruling comes down. However, plaintiffs are expected to seek a preliminary injunction prohibiting the planting of Roundup Ready beets while the USDA completes a full environmental impact study.
If granted, growers would have to scramble for whatever conventional seed supplies remain in stock, hoping they would be compatible with their local growing conditions.
They'd have to return to conventional herbicides and try to find work crews to hoe their fields again, a practice many growers happily abandoned after switching to Roundup Ready seed.
The estimated 4.7 million tons of sugar beets produced by U.S. farmers accounts for 58.6 percent of domestic sugar production. Sugar cane production accounts for the rest.
U.S. commercial plantings of Roundup Ready beets went from virtually nothing four years ago to 95 percent of the U.S. beet crop this year.
"It's been by far the fastest adoption of biotech of any crop ever," said Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugar beet Growers Association.
Since 1987, sugar beets have provided more than $1 billion a year in total farm-gate receipts to growers in about 11 states, including Idaho, California, Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota and Minnesota.
In 2006, the U.S. beet crop was valued at about $1.5 billion.
But that doesn't begin to reflect the full economic impact of the industry, Markwart said. It doesn't include the wages paid by sugar beet processors or the money that those workers spend in their communities.
It doesn't cover the value of the refined sugar or all the money that farmers pay to suppliers for inputs.
The loss of the sugar beet industry in Idaho would have huge ripple effects, University of Idaho economists found in a 2004 study -- $721 million in gross sales, $163 million in value-added, 3,414 jobs, $111 million in earnings and $12 million in indirect business taxes.
Without beets, farmers would switch to other crops such as potatoes and onions. That would cause prices for Idaho potatoes to drop by about 17 percent and prices for Idaho onions to decline by about 7 percent, UI economists calculated.
A similar study in 2003 by agricultural economists at North Dakota State University calculated the total impact on the states of Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota, accounting for more than half of the U.S. sugar beet acreage, at more than $3 billion.
The study put the direct impact of the sugar beet industry in those states was $1.1 billion, and it estimated an additional $2 billion in secondary economic impact on the region.
The study found that the industry in those three states accounted for more than 2,600 full-time-equivalent workers and that the industry supported more than 29,000 additional full-time jobs.
The three states also received about $62.6 million in tax revenue -- $41.9 million in Minnesota, $18.9 million in North Dakota and $1.8 million in Montana.
State Value of production (2007)
Minnesota $517.45 million
North Dakota $264.19 million
Idaho $209.69 million
Michigan $125.53 million
California $60.52 million
Source: National Agricultural Statistics Service