95 percent of U.S. sugar beet acreage uses engineered seed
By DAVE WILKINS
Northwest sugar beet farmers still hope to grow Roundup Ready varieties next season even though a court ruling casts doubt on the future of the genetically modified crop.
Nearly all sugar beets grown in Idaho and Eastern Oregon this year were Roundup Ready varieties and farmers aren't making any plans to go back to conventional seed, industry officials said.
"I know on our operation, we're anticipating being able to use Roundup Ready beet seed in 2010," said Duane Grant, a Rupert, Idaho, farmer and chairman of the Snake River Sugar Co. board of directors.
A federal judge ruled last month that the USDA was premature in approving Roundup Ready beets for widespread commercial use two years ago.
The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups and organic farmers. They include Sierra Club, Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance and High Mowing Organic Seeds. The plaintiffs are expected to ask federal Judge Jeffrey White later this month for an injunction barring farmers from planting Roundup Ready beets until the USDA completes a reexamination of potential environmental and economic impacts.
Opponents are concerned that Roundup Ready beet seed, which is grown primarily in the Willamette Valley, will cross-pollinate with crops closely related to sugar beets such as organic chard and table beets.
Roundup Ready beets were developed to tolerate Roundup, a broad-spectrum glyphosate herbicide made by Monsanto. Growers can use Roundup to kill weeds without killing their crop.
Commercial beet growers report that the biotech crop has allowed them to control weeds more effectively than ever before. Yields are up as a result.
"We have been successful in controlling weeds in all our beet fields," Grant said. "That's a first. We have never been able to do that before."
While growers remain hopeful, they're also concerned that the federal court could restrict the use of Roundup Ready varieties for next year.
"It's causing a significant degree of anxiety among growers," Grant said. "Our business model going forward depends on access to Roundup Ready sugar beets."
Restrictions on Roundup Ready seed would almost certainly put an end to strip tillage, a promising new cultural practice that reduces wind erosion, he said.
"Without Roundup Ready seed, you have to control weeds through intensive cultivation, and that's the opposite of strip tillage," Grant said.
Industry officials said they couldn't comment on the availability of conventional seed, but it would seem reasonable to assume a limited supply, given grower preferences.
"There were no Snake River Sugar Co. growers who ordered conventional seed for 2009," Grant said. "It's pretty darn obvious where the demand is."
When the judge sits down with both sides on Oct. 30, he will have to consider that the switch to Roundup Ready beets in the United States has been nearly universal, industry officials said.
"You have an industry that this year is 95 percent Roundup Ready sugar beets," said Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association. "You now have an industry that for the most part is fully transitioned to the new technology."
The United States and Canada are the only countries to deregulate Roundup Ready sugar beets.
However, sugar extracted from Roundup Ready beets can be exported to many countries, including the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, said Thomas Schwartz, co-chairman of the Sugar Industry Biotech Council.
Independent studies have confirmed that the sugar from Roundup Ready sugar beets is identical to sugar from other comparably grown sugar beets, Schwartz said.
He's convinced the technology is safe for consumers and the environment.
"We believe that USDA did the proper thing when they deregulated Roundup Ready sugar beets," he said.
Staff writer Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls, Idaho. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sugar Industry Biotech Council: www.sugarindustrybiotechcouncil.org
Snake River Sugar Co.: www.srcoop.com
Monsanto's Genuity Roundup Ready sugar beets: www.genuity.com/Traits/Specialty/Genuity-Roundup-Ready-Sugarbeets.aspx
Center for Food Safety: http://truefoodnow.org
Organic Seed Alliance: www.seedalliance.org
High Mowing Organic Seeds: www.highmowingseeds.com