In the Spotlight

News & Features
No to GMO
by Dan Gunderson
March 1, 2000
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The U.S. sugar beet industry is telling farmers not to plant genetically-modified seed this year; processors say they won't buy GM beets. Farmers could significantly cut costs by growing the herbicide-resistant plants, but they won't be planted because of industry concerns about a consumer backlash.

GROWERS HAVE EAGERLY awaited the arrival of herbicide resistant sugar beets. Red River Valley Sugar Beet Growers Association Executive Director Mark Weber says two companies have seeds ready to plant, but the processors, the farmers sole market for their beets are not prepared to take them.

The industry is not saying which customers are concerned about GM sugar beets, but about 80 percent of sugar is sold to companies that make retail food products.

Farmers are frustrated and angered by the decision. The new seeds, known as Roundup Ready and Liberty Link, could cut farmers chemical costs by 50 percent, and eliminate the need for cultivation and hand labor. Alan Dexter,a sugar beet weed specialist for North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota, says the new seeds would also allow farmers to use chemicals that are more friendly to the environment than herbicides now in use.

The sugar industry says it's not closing the door on beets grown from GM seeds, the decision will be reviewed each year.

But North Carolina State University sociologist Thomas Hoban says the sugar industry's decision not to use GM seeds, even temporarily, is a victory for opponents of the technology and will likely have a ripple effect. Hoban has been monitoring consumer acceptance of biotechnology since the mid-1980s. He says there is no evidence to support fear of a widespread consumer backlash against biotech sugar in the United States.

The bottom line is this spring the seed much anticipated and desired by sugar beet farmers will stay on the shelf.