Photo: mendesrocha, Flickr
Things are not so sweet for the U.S. sugar beet market. A federal judge's ruling may prevent farmers from planting genetically modified sugar beets.
The controversy stems from a case in which the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, High Mowing Organic Seeds and the Sierra Club challenged the U.S. Department of Agriculture for allowing farmers to plant GM sugar beets before enough research had been conducted to determine their possible environmental impact. A judge ruled in favor of the environmental groups in August, but by September, the USDA had issued four "non-flowering" permits to growers in Oregon and Arizona -- where most sugar beet seedlings are grown. The action prompted environmentalists to challenge the government in court yet again.
On Friday, Judge Jeffrey White of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California will hear more arguments in the case. His ruling could have a significant impact on the industry. Nearly 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet production is grown from GMO seeds -- a speedy and considerable change from 2005 when the GMO seeds were first approved. Over half of all U.S. sugar production comes from sugar beets; the rest is derived from sugar cane.
"The government didn't look at how these GMOs could contaminate organic table beets or Swiss chard, which are in the same family," says Paige Tomaselli, staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety. "The court said that going forward it was illegal to plant any GMO sugar beets. While it was okay to harvest what was already in the ground, it wasn't legal to sell any GMO sugar beet seeds."
According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. sugar production could be cut by 20 percent if farmers are banned from planting GMO seeds. Worries loom that a shortage of traditional seeds could reduce next year's crop by 1.6 million tons.
The shortage of traditional seed puts future crops in limbo, says AgJournal.
"The food industry is worried that a shortage of sugar-beet seed and a potential shortage of farmers willing to grow it will limit supplies and raise prices," writes AgJournal reporter Candace Krebs.
That's a valid concern when you couple it with strict U.S. sugar tariffs and already tight worldwide supplies. In fact, it sort of makes the future seem a little bit less sweet.