WILLAMETTE VALLEY, Ore. – The sugar beets growing in farmer Tim Winn’s fields do not look menacing. But other farmers in Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley fear the beets could devastate their crops.
Winn’s sugar beets have been genetically modified to allow them to survive application of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready herbicide. The modification allows Winn to kill weeds in his field with two sprayings of Roundup, rather than the multiple applications of various herbicides he used to use.
Winn and other sugar beet farmers across the country say Roundup Ready sugar beet – which are being grown on a commercial scale for the first time this year – make farmers’ work easier and more profitable. And, they claim, there will be environmental benefits because farmers will make fewer passes through fields with a tractor – a point that was made in a 2003 British study published in New Scientist magazine.
But Kevin Golden, staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety, says the unknown long-term environmental risks of genetically modified crops outweigh short-term benefits.
“We admit Roundup is a less toxic alternative than a lot of the herbicides, but weed resistance is developing really fast,” Golden says. “Eventually, Roundup becomes obsolete and farmers have to use these really nasty herbicides. It’s a self-defeating prophecy to use this as a silver bullet.”
And, he notes, the possible human health consequences of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops have not been adequately studied.
“GMOs are only 12 years old. It’s a human experiment we don’t know the answer to yet,” says Golden.
Frank Morton, who distributes organic seeds all over the world from his farm in Philomath, Ore., says Roundup herbicide alters the local soil ecology, including suppressing beneficial fungi that kill pathogens.
“The whole farm system can be affected,” Morton says.
Sugar beets supply about half the nation’s sugar, and represent a $21 billion industry. Packaged sugar on grocery shelves contains sugar beet and sugar cane. Because sugar is produced in large factories, if Roundup Ready becomes the sugar beet industry standard, it is unlikely any sugar would be available to consumers that does not come partially from GMO beets.
Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, the industry trade group, claims that in most farming areas, contamination would not be an issue because sugar beets are harvested before they go to seed.
But in the Willamette Valley, where sugar beets are grown specifically for seed, it is a different story.
In January, several environmental and public health groups – including the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds – filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in federal district court in northern California. They demanded a permanent injunction against planting GMO sugar beets until the agency studies closely their environmental and health impacts, and the risk of cross-pollination.
The ongoing suit was filed in the same court that in February 2007 issued a permanent injunction against the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa, pending further study by the USDA.
Controversy continues over how far apart farmers’ crops must be to avoid the risk of cross-pollination.
In the Willamette Valley, the industry standard is one mile for beets. But many farmers say the windborne seeds can travel up to five miles.
Because many farmers are part of cooperatives that grow sugar beets on contract for companies that supply seed, Winn says individual farmers have little choice on whether to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets.
If the court rules against Roundup Ready beets this season, Winn says his crop will be destroyed, though he will still get paid.
“As a businessman, it’s easier on my stomach if I can predict the outcomes,” he says. “I just want to harvest my crops. I get emotional about all the politics around this.”
But Morton and other growers of organic chard and table beets fear Roundup Ready beets will wipe out their industry, regardless of whether it is contaminated from nearby GMO sugar beets.
Chard is closely related to sugar beets, so genetically modified sugar beet seeds could contaminate the crop, thereby obliterating the chard’s organic certification and market.
“There’s a problem with perception,” Morton says. “If word gets out that we’re contaminated with GE [genetic engineering], we’re no better than any place else.”
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.