As US food companies shift to non-GMO sugar cane, Claire Robinson examines claims by a GMO promoter and glyphosate defender that important environmental and social gains will be lost
As more US food companies embrace voluntary GMO labelling, several companies like Hershey’s are moving away from US sugar beet, which is almost all GMO, and towards sugar cane, which is non-GMO.
A blog post by GMO promoter and glyphosate defender Andrew Kniss addressed this major shift.
Kniss’s blog was titled, “As consumers shift to non-GMO sugar, farmers may be forced to abandon environmental and social gains”. He creates a crisis narrative in which farmers are faced with the loss of GMO sugar beets despite the fact that they have decreased herbicide use, been a boon to the environment, and made farmers’ lives easier.
But there are many problems with this simplistic narrative. In particular, as we shall see, it ignores important facts – namely that GMO sugar beets:
* haven’t reduced herbicide use overall – in fact, quite the opposite, a greater quantity is almost certainly being applied
* may have simplified weed management for the moment BUT that’s only till herbicide-resistant weeds take hold, as we know they will
* may appear to have reduced the toxic load for now BUT increasing health problems are emerging with glyphosate, and weed resistance will force farmers to use more toxic old-school herbicides anyway - as well as glyphosate
* have placed conventional farmers under the monopoly control of the GMO/agrichemical industry, by removing the option of non-GMO sugar beet farming
* don’t have as good an environmental profile as organic sugar beet
* are being replaced with cane sugar from poorer nations, which is arguably a social good.
Let’s examine Kniss’s argument in detail.
Kniss points to the “simplicity” and “significantly improved weed control of the Roundup Ready sugarbeet system that convinced farmers to switch” from conventional chemical production.
He writes: “Conventional sugar beet herbicides can cause severe injury [to the beet crop] under adverse environmental conditions. Some growers refer to conventional sugar beet herbicides as ‘chemotherapy’ for the beets. They injure and weaken the beets, but they hurt the weeds a little more. This is why the conventional herbicides were often applied multiple times at short time intervals…”
Kniss says that the herbicide regimen with non-GMO beets “used to include 4 to 6 different herbicides applied between 3 to 6 times per year, at 5 to 10 day intervals.”
Even after this much spraying, according to Kniss, “Around 40 to 60% of sugarbeet fields had to be hand-weeded because the herbicides rarely provided complete weed control.”
Kniss compares this to the Roundup Ready GMO system, “where 2 or 3 applications of glyphosate have replaced the many herbicide sprays that were used previously, while providing better weed control” and virtually eliminating crop injury.
Kniss claims, “GMO sugar beet has reduced herbicide use, increased soil health, decreased risk of crop injury, increased yield, and has even allowed farmers to spend more time with their families.”
Kniss concludes, “GMO sugar beets are better for the environment, the world, and the consumer.”
So has GMO sugar beet decreased herbicide use? And is it a boon to the environment? We invited Dr Charles Benbrook of Benbrook Consulting Services in the US, who has studied the effects of GM Roundup Ready crops on pesticide use, to respond.
Weed resistance in GMO sugar beet: Not “if” but “when”
According to Dr Benbrook: “Weed management is difficult in sugar beets because of lack of a closed leaf canopy that can suppress weeds, and a relatively long growing season. The benefits of Roundup Ready (RR) sugar beets were and remain much greater than in other crops, although the risk of resistance is about the same.
“I modelled the shift from current, herbicide-intensive sugar beet weed management in several European nations and compared to usage under RR beets, in a project for Greenpeace International a couple of years ago.
“I projected a slight increase in pounds applied with glyphosate, because many of the herbicides displaced were low dose, or very low dose. So there would be a drop from around 10 applications of several different herbicide active ingredients to only 3 of glyphosate, but there would still be an increase in total pounds applied.
“Almost certainly, all things considered, the public health and environmental impact of the 10 applications exceeds by several-fold the impact of 3 applications of glyphosate.
“But alas, the fly in the ointment is obvious. There are already over a dozen glyphosate-resistant weeds in the EU, and more in the US, so this period of marginal benefit from RR sugar beets is destined to be short-lived. This is especially true because the industry removed the single most important resistance-management practice - not spraying glyphosate year in and year out.
“Because around 100% of seed is RR, farmers won't pay big bucks for the trait and then not use it, so this scheme locks in continuous reliance on glyphosate, and hence the emergence and spread of resistance. It’s not a question of if, but of when and how fast the resistance gets worse.”
There’s also the not-so-small problem that glyphosate herbicides are more toxic than previously thought. Glyphosate was classified last year by the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency IARC as a probable carcinogen. Levels of the herbicide that would be found in GM glyphosate-tolerant sugar beet have not been directly tested to see if they are safe to consume over the long term.
Coordinated effort to genetically modify all sugar beet
Ken Roseboro, editor and publisher of The Organic & Non-GMO Report, says, “There was industry coordination to introduce all Roundup Ready sugar beets and now that big companies like Hershey’s want sugar cane, the sugar beet producers are losing markets. They put all their eggs in the GMO basket.”
Roseboro adds, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see some groups of farmers decide to go non-GMO but it seems that non-GMO seed is not readily available.”
Back in 2008 Roseboro described how the sugar beet processing and food industries made a unanimous decision to go GMO:
“Harvested beets are processed by seven processing companies, the biggest being American Crystal Sugar Company, based in Moorhead, Minnesota. These processors supply beet sugar, which accounts for one-half of the US sugar production, to food and candy manufacturers, such as Mars and Hershey’s.
“Three years ago, these processors decided to convert the entire US sugar beet production to Roundup Ready genetically modified varieties, developed by Monsanto Company. The industry said farmers needed the GM beets for better weed control.”
Organic seed supplier Frank Morton is quoted as saying, “Unanimity was necessary. If any one of the beet processors or a major candy company had rejected the idea of GM beets, the introduction would not have gone ahead.”
Unlike corn and soybean production, where non-GMO alternatives are available, the sugar beet processors did not want that option.
Morton said, “This was a coordinated effort to genetically modify an entire sector of the processed food industry simultaneously and without holdouts that might otherwise have provided a source of conventional beet sugar to fulfil non-GMO consumer demand.”
Europe escapes crisis
In Europe, we don’t have a supply problem for non-GM sugar. Europe imports cane sugar, which is all non-GM, and its domestic sugar beet production is also all non-GMO.
There is likely to be little appetite in Europe for GMO herbicide-tolerant sugar beet due to the herbicide residues that the crop will contain. There is also a strong argument in favour of buying cane sugar from poorer nations, which need the money. This is a social ‘good’ that arguably more than cancels out Kniss’s claim that herbicide-spraying GMO-growing farmers in the US have more time to spend with their families.
The organic sector prefers cane sugar and so no organic sugar beet is grown in the UK, according to Peter Melchett, policy director of the UK organic certifier, the Soil Association. But some organic sugar beet is grown in other European countries. Organic growers in the Netherlands report that acceptable weed control can be achieved with mechanical weeders, without the use of chemicals or excessive hand labour.
While organic sugar beet yields are lower than conventional, that’s not a crucial issue for what is essentially a high-end market product.
The real crisis
All in all, Kniss’s crisis narrative about the threatened loss of the supposed environmental and social boons of GMO sugar beet seems like a desperate attempt to distract from the real crisis facing the US agricultural and food sectors. That’s the extreme difficulty of exiting from the dead-end route of handing over an entire crop to the GMO and agrochemicals industry.