Sidney Herald: Debate is Drawing a Bullseye on Beets

Efforts are continuing in the United States Senate to develop a compromise on GMO labeling that would circumvent Vermont’s GMO labeling law which goes into effect July 1. That law is a trigger for enacting similar laws in two other states, Maine and Connecticut.

Roberts brought a bill to the Senate floor in March, dubbed by opponents as the Deny Americans Right to Know act, that attempted to forestall Vermont’s legislation. The Kansas Senator is trying again with another bill he says has “workable solutions” to address the concerns that flummoxed his last bill. He doesn’t expect anything definitive to happen on this before the Memorial Day recess.

Senator Jon Tester was among those opposing Roberts’ bill in March, while Senator Steve Daines supported it. The proposal in March would have pre-empted state laws requiring mandatory labeling of biotech products and would have created a voluntary national standard. If after three years, participation in it was not substantial — aka 70 percent of frequently consumed foods — a national mandatory standard with multiple compliance options would have been established by the Secretary for agriculture.

“The DARK Act is a scam that leaves folks questioning what’s in their food,” Tester said at the time. “This is exactly the type of shady corporate ruse that the Senate should be protecting the public against. And I’m pleased today that we stopped bad legislation from moving forward.”

Daines, meanwhile says of the issue, “I have no issue with voluntary programs that meet market demands or consumer preferences. That being said, I believe USDA’s priority should be with making determinations based on sound science regarding the safety of biotech products within its jurisdiction, not on marketing or mandatory labeling efforts that have no bearing on food safety or plant pest risk.”

On the House side, U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke voted for the House version of the bill that would have created a federal labeling standard to certify genetically engineered food.

“Montanans have a right to know what is in the food they are eating and preparing for their families, which is exactly why I voted for the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act,” Zinke said. “With more folks than ever looking at the labels on their favorite foods, this law makes the important step of creating a national standard for labeling foods and allows consumers to shop with confidence,” said Rep Zinke. “The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act will also protect farmers, ranchers and others in the food industry from costly and duplicative regulations levied by states and allow Montana producers to better compete nationally.”

Bullseye on beets

The whole debate has been drawing a bullseye on an important MonDak crop, namely sugar beets. Hershey, for example, dumped beet sugar earlier in the year to avoid having a GMO label on their products.

Industry leaders, meanwhile, have pointed out that sugar from GMO beets doesn’t differ chemically from non-GMO sources, nor is it chemically different from cane sugar. You can read the abstract for one of those studies here:

Purity standards are exceptionally high for sugar, in large part because consumers have wanted their sugar to be non-sticky and pure white. Achieving that generally means purity levels must be well over 99 percent.

American Crystal president David Berg, the parent company of Sidney Sugars, has said he feels the company as a whole has lost 2.2 percent of total customer volume to cane sugar because of GMO reasons.

However, that doesn’t necessarily reflect overall demand for beet sugar. The higher prices of cane sugar are helping keep demand for beet sugar at healthy levels. Most plants have reported running at capacity and Sidney Sugars has contracted 33,500 acres this year, up about 2,500 acres

As an example, of the price spread involved here, the USDA’s Economic Research Service recently reported that sugar beets were at 30 to 31 cents a pound while cane sugar was ranging from 33 to 36 cents. That May 6 spread is not the highest it has been in the past few years, either. You can look at the trends yourself at,

One thing that seems to get lost in the national GMO debate is the fact that biotechnology has actually allowed a dramatic reduction in the use of herbicide and pesticides, which is overall very good for the environment. That’s been pointed out in previous interviews with David Garland, general manager of Sidney Sugars, as well as interviews with many growers in the area.

Not only that, but farmers are able to make fewer passes over their fields, using less fuel and treating the soil more gently, and they are able to use fewer of the restricted varieties of pesticide and insecticide than ever before, another big plus for the environment.

Dozens of studies and health organizations have reviewed GMO crops, Garland points out. “All have deemed it safe for human consumption.” he says. “I don’t believe any have deemed it not safe. From our standpoint, and the grower standpoint, it allows them to be more productive.”

Recent moves, Hershey’s among them, to dump “GMO” sugar are producing concern, however, both nationally and locally.

“We definitely don’t want to lose any customers to something we feel science has deemed safe,” Garland said. “Using GMOs allows us to feed the world.”

USDA raises cane sugar limits

Complicating the picture ahead for area sugar beet growers, the USDA recently announced it would allow 200,000 more tons of cane sugar into the U.S., due to a projected shortfall in domestic cane sugar supplies.

That increase is to include 60,000 tons from Mexico, whose export quotas were limited after a ruling by the U.S. International Trade Commission that subsidized Mexican sugar imports were dragging down U.S. prices for sugar growers.