(Beyond Pesticides, November 30, 2007) Seven years ago, the introduction of genetically modified (GM) sugar beets, along with other crops like potatoes and rice, was shelved at fears that consumers would not support their use. Sugar beets, which produce about half of the United States sugar (almost all of which is used domestically), are used in foods like candy, cereal, and baking products. The failure of the GM beet’s initial introduction was based on unwillingness from companies like Hershey and Kellogg to provoke consumer protests.
Now, the marketplace seems to have changed enough that such big sugar-buying companies are less hesitant to buy Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” beet (which are tolerant of Roundup’s main ingredient, glyphosate). According to Kellogg spokeswoman Kris Charles, her company “would not have any issues” buying them because “most consumers are not concerned about biotech.”
“Basically, we have not run into resistance,” said American Crystal Sugar president David Berg of the switch. “We really think that consumer attitudes have come to accept food from biotechnology.” Most other companies, including Hershey and Mars, are refusing to comment on the subject, which has kept these developments quiet until recently.
Despite the corporate perception of public opinion on GM crops, organic advocates are disappointed that GM sugar beets have again become a possibility. “When I first saw this I said, ‘No, it can’t be,'” said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). “I thought we had already dealt with this.” OCA has already begun its consumer campaign to get sugar buyers to reject GM beets again. “I don’t think companies like Hershey are going to want any more hassles than they already have,” said Cummins.
Issues with the crop center around environmental impact, like herbicide-resistant weeds (which have begun to appear in Roundup Ready corn and soybean fields) and threats to wildlife (see Daily News from 10/24/03 and 1/21/05). While the sugar derived from GM beets does not contain DNA or proteins, in areas where the beets are left in the ground for a winter, like California, they can produce seed that might spread to other fields. “We have to make sure we don’t cause ourselves more problems than we’re curing,” said Ben Goodwin, executive manager of the California Beet Growers Association. For more background on GM crops, visit our program page.