Bitter fight developing over sugar beets

A sugar beet in the ground ready for harvest

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The most heavily-traded futures contract in New York today was not oil. It wasn't gold. You'll probably never guess, so I'll just go ahead and give you the answer: Sugar was the hot commodity today as traders backed it down off 28-year highs. Rumors of a big purchase by the Indian government helped drive that.

Here in this country more than half our sugar comes from beets. From a beet crop that is almost entirely genetically modified. Organic farmers and food-safety advocates are suing to keep that crop out of the ground this coming spring. From the Marketplace Entrepreneurship Desk at Oregon Public Broadcasting, Mitchell Hartman reports.


MITCHELL HARTMAN: If the Midwest is the nation's breadbasket, then Oregon's Willamette Valley might be called its "seed basket."

FRANK MORTON: The Willamette Valley is a world-class place to grow seeds. We have good soils, ample water. But really it's the climate. It's a dry summer and a mild, moist winter.

Frank Morton came here as a young man from West Virginia and quickly got into farming. He now runs Wild Garden Seed, which produces 150 varieties of organic seeds. He showed me around his drying shed, piled high with escarole, peppers and table beets.

MORTON: My workers are over here sowing seed flats with my Bull's Blood beet, MacGregor's beet.

Morton's organic seed farm is tiny: five acres and a greenhouse. There are 5,000 acres of commercial sugar-beet seed planted across this valley. Nationwide, sugar beets are a $3 billion crop. And nearly all of those beets are genetically engineered to resist an herbicide called Roundup.

It's made by Monsanto, and when it's used on Roundup-ready plants like corn, alfalfa and sugar beets, it kills all the weeds in a field, but crops are left unharmed because they have a gene that makes them immune. And therein lies the problem for Frank Morton.

MORTON: Actually, a mile and a quarter east of here is a sugar-beet seed farm. I'm upwind of that guy. But not exactly upwind of him.

That wind could carry genetically-engineered sugar-beet pollen into Morton's organic farm, and contaminate his crop.

MORTON: If biotech traits show up in my seeds, then my seeds are worthless. If my traits show up in conventional or biotech seeds, it's not a big deal to them, it does not destroy their value. It's an asymmetrical relationship we have here.

Organic growers have raised similar concerns about genetically engineered soy beans, corn and other crops. This time they're looking to tip the balance back. They spearheaded a lawsuit charging the USDA approved Roundup Ready sugar beets without assessing potential environmental impacts, like genetic contamination and herbicide resistance.

In September, a federal judge ordered the USDA to do the environmental review. It could take years. In the meantime, the farmers and their allies are headed back to court.

Zelig Golden is a lawyer with the Center for Food Safety.

ZELIG GOLDEN: We're going to be moving the court to issue a permanent injunction to halt the sale and planting of GE sugar-beet seeds now and into the future, until the USDA does its job to protect consumers and farmers alike.

That would help the organic farmers. But there are 10,000 non-organic farmers raising more than a million acres of Roundup Ready sugar beets in 11 states. Along with Monsanto and the big seed companies, farmers are trying to protect their multi-billion-dollar business from a planting ban next spring. Monsanto, which has the patent for Roundup Ready seeds, wouldn't comment for this story, citing the pending litigation.

Luther Markwart of the American Sugar Beet Growers Association says more is at stake than the revenue from next year's crop.

LUTHER MARKWART: This is a food security issue. We need to make sure that we have a good, strong, viable domestic beet-sugar industry.

And he says the environmentalists have this one all wrong.

MARKWART: What you find with Roundup is you use one herbicide, you can apply it typically half as often. So this is a much more environmentally friendly way of raising our crop.

Markwart says 95 percent of the crop nationwide has converted to Roundup Ready in just the past three years. And he insists organic growers can be protected using traditional methods like monitoring and isolation. Frank Morton says just one accident could ruin him.

The parties meet in court next month. In a similar case, a judge banned Roundup Ready alfalfa; Monsanto's appealing that decision to the Supreme Court. If there's a ban on sugar-beet planting nationwide, it's doubtful there's enough conventional seed in storage to lay in a crop next spring.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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