Biotech cane undergoing trials in three countries


Capital Press

U.S. sugar beet growers can count on moral support from cane growers in the fight to keep Roundup Ready varieties.

The sugar cane industry has biotech aspirations of its own and is rooting for beet growers to prevail in their legal battle with environmental groups.

"We're for our brothers-in-arms in the domestic sugar industry. We want them to be successful," Ryan Weston, executive vice president of the Sugar Cane League, said in a telephone interview. The league represents cane growers in Florida, Hawaii and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

A federal judge in September ruled that USDA erred in deregulating Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2005 because the agency failed to adequately consider the potential environmental impacts. The judge ordered the agency to go back and conduct an environmental impact statement, putting the future of Roundup Ready beets in doubt.

About 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop was planted to Roundup Ready varieties this year. The technology allows growers to spray their fields with Roundup, Monsanto's broad-spectrum glyphosate herbicide, with little or no damage to beet plants.

Beet growers have said it allows them to control weeds like never before, and most don't want to go back to conventional varieties.

The sugar cane industry isn't involved in the Roundup Ready case, but is lending moral support to beet growers -- and for good reason.

Genetically engineered sugar cane varieties are in the testing phase in the U.S., Brazil and Australia, industry officials said.

"People all over the world are looking at GE cane," Weston said.

Companies are working on genetically modified sugar cane seed that includes a variety of traits, including higher sucrose levels and improved nitrogen and water efficiency.

Earlier this year, German-based BASF and the Brazilian Sugar Cane Technology Center announced an agreement to develop new biotech cane varieties that are higher yielding and drought tolerant.

The goal is to bring sugar cane varieties with yield increases of 25 percent to market within the next decade, company officials said.

Monsanto is reportedly working on a Roundup Ready sugar cane variety that it hopes to market within the next five years.

Cane industry officials view the Roundup Ready sugar beet experience as a cautionary tale.

Weston said it's imperative that once a regulatory agency approves a biotech crop that the decision is final.

"We want to ensure that there's a good system in place ... so when you go through all the approval process we make sure that it stands," he said.

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