U.S. sugar beet growers may have misjudged market: prof

Genetically modified sugar beet crops use less herbicide and require less soil tillage, but those environmental benefits are still not enough to overcome consumers’ mistrust of GM technology.  |  File photo

MOOSE JAW, Sask. — Hindsight is 20/20, and American sugar beet growers are wondering if they did the right thing when they switched to genetically modified varieties.

Lynn Kennedy, an agricultural economist at Louisiana State University, said beet growers have adopted GM varieties in a dramatic fashion in the last decade.

No GM beets were grown in 2007, but “by 2010, over 95 percent of the United States had gone to genetically modified products,” he told the Farming For Profit conference earlier this year.

“They went all in together and they were ready to sink or swim together. I don’t think they looked ahead and thought this might be a problem.”

That problem, of course, is consumer perception.

Kennedy said growing GM varieties is far more environmentally friendly because of reduced herbicide use and fewer passes through fields.

“When you can’t use Roundup on sugar beets … you have to use a variety of other (herbicides) and you tend to stunt the growth,” he said.

“You don’t have the healthy kind of sugar beet that would yield more in other situations.”

Consumers want greener technology, but some of those same people also don’t want GM crops.

He said GM and non-GM sugar are the same product because the DNA isn’t passed along to the sucrose left after refining. Genetically modifying a crop involves changing the protein; sucrose doesn’t contain any protein.

However, large candy-makers and other companies are paying as much as three cents a pound less for beet sugar than for cane sugar because they want to place their products in stores such as Whole Foods that cater to those who oppose GM crops.

Kennedy said it’s difficult to debate healthy versus unhealthy sugar, but there are negative repercussions from the beet growers’ decision.

He said one reason for developing a GM crop is to increase yields. He examined sugar yields from 1980 to 2016 and found sugar yields were below 3.5 tonnes per harvested acre in the 30 years before 2010.

“Once GM beets were adopted, it went over four tonnes per acre,” he said.

But then he looked at yield data from the European Union, where GM crops are not grown.

“There’s really been greater gains in the European Union during the same time period,” he said.

Something else is at play, but he said more study is required.

From a food security perspective, he said the acreage used to grow GM sugar beets has declined enough that another 24 million bushels of corn could be produced on the same land. Freeing up land for food production is not a bad thing, he added.

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