This year saw the first commercial planting of genetically modified (GM) sugar beets in the United States, with that sugar to hit the food supply soon after.
Farmers across the country will soon be planting Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beet, genetically engineered for resistance to Monsanto's herbicide glyphosate (marketed as Roundup). John Schorr, agriculture manager for Amalgamated Sugar, estimates that 95 percent of the sugar beet crop in Idaho will be of the new GM variety in 2008, or a total of 150,000 out of 167,000 acres.
Approximately 1.4 million acres of sugar beets are planted in the United States each year, primarily in Minnesota and North Dakota's Red River Valley, as well as the Pacific Northwest, Great Plains and Great Lakes areas.
In response to the anticipated flood of GM sugar onto the food market, the consumer group Citizens for Health has launched an email campaign to pressure three major sugar and candy companies to refuse the new product. In 2001, American Crystal Sugar, Hershey's and M&M Mars all promised that they would not use GM sugar; Citizens for Health is asking consumers to email those companies from the group's Web site and urge them to keep that promise.
"Since half of the granulated sugar in the U.S. comes from sugar beets, the infiltration of GE sugar beets represents a significant alteration of our food supply," Citizens for Health says on its Web site. "Unlike traditional breeding, genetic engineering creates new life forms that would never occur in nature, creating new and unpredictable health and environmental risks."
In 1999, candy companies' refusal to purchase GM sugar scuttled Monsanto's first attempt to introduce Roundup Ready sugar beets.
On another front, a coalition of farmer and environmental groups is seeking to block the planting of the GM beets through a federal lawsuit. The plaintiffs in the case - the Center for Food Safety, High Mowing Organic Seeds, the Organic Seed Alliance and the Sierra Club - are represented by lawyers from the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) changed the classification of Roundup Ready sugar beets from regulated to deregulated, meaning that the GM beets could be planted without a special permit. But the lawsuit alleges that the USDA failed to properly conduct an environmental review into the impacts of this deregulation.
"The law requires the government to take a hard look at the impact that deregulating Roundup Ready sugar beets will have on human health, agriculture and the environment," said Greg Loarie of Earthjustice. "The government cannot simply ignore the fact that deregulation will harm organic farmers and consumers, and exacerbate the growing epidemic of herbicide resistant weeds."
Critics point out that Roundup Ready crops encourage increased chemical use, with dangerous effects on both human health and the environment. In addition to contaminating soil and water, pesticides leave potentially dangerous residue on food plants themselves.
Citizens for Health says that this is a particular concern in light of the Environmental Protection Agency's recent compliance with a Monsanto request to increase the allowable levels of glyphosate residue on sugar beet roots by 5000 percent.
"Sugar is extracted from the beet's root, and the result is more glyphosate pesticide in our sugar," the group said.
Another concern is that such plants encourage the development of "superweeds" that are resistant to Roundup.
"Just as overuse of antibiotics eventually breeds drug resistant bacteria, overuse of Roundup eventually breeds Roundup-resistant weeds," said Kevin Golden of the Center for Food Safety. "When that happens, farmers are forced to rely on even more toxic herbicides to control those weeds."
USDA data reveals that in the 10 years after the 1994 introduction of Roundup Ready crops, herbicide use increased by 15 times. This has led to a concurrent increase in superweeds. While no cases of Roundup-resistant weeds were known in the U.S. corn belt in 2000, this year the roster of such weeds includes marestail, common and giant ragweed, waterhemp, Palmer pigweed, Cocklebur, lambsquarters, morning glory and velvetleaf.
Ninety-nine percent of U.S. superweeds are resistant to Roundup.
GM crops may also cross-breed with non-GM plants of the same or closely related species. The primary seed-growing region for sugar beets - the Willamette Valley of Oregon - is also a major seed-growing area for the closely related organic chard and table beets. Since all these species are wind pollinated, the chances of contamination are very high.
"Contamination from genetically modified pollen is a major risk to both the conventional and organic seed farmers, who have a long history in the Willamette Valley," said Matthew Dillon, director of advocacy for the Organic Seed Alliance. "The economic impact of contamination affects not only these seed farmers, but the beet and chard farmers who rely on the genetic integrity of their varieties."
Crops contaminated by cross-pollination with GM varieties can no longer be certified organic.
Since corn syrup is an even more widely used sweetener than sugar and the majority of corn grown in the United States is also Roundup Ready, food safety advocates note that nearly all sweetened food in the United States will soon be GM. Because U.S. law does not require labeling of GM ingredients, consumers of products from candy to breakfast cereal will soon be unknowingly exposed to engineered sugar, with unknown health consequences.
"As a consumer, I'm very concerned about genetically engineered sugar making its way into the products I eat," Neil Carman of the Sierra Club said.
Sources for this story include: www.citizens.org, www.organicconsumers.org.