Farmers Say Time Is Right for Biotech Beets

種植基改甜菜 農民指時機成熟

Published: November 27, 2007

Each growing season, like many other sugar beet farmers bedeviled by weeds, Robert Green repeatedly and painstakingly applies herbicides in a process he compares to treating cancer with chemotherapy.

Robert Green will plant the modified sugar beets on his farm in North Dakota next spring.

In his right hand, Duane Grant holds a genetically engineered sugar beet, next to a conventional beet. Once refined, the sugar from each would be the same, sucrose.

“You give small doses of products that might harm the crop, but it harms the weeds a little more,” said Mr. Green, who plants about 360 hectares in beets in St. Thomas, North Dakota.

But next spring, for the first time, Mr. Green intends to plant beets genetically engineered to withstand Monsanto’s powerful Roundup herbicide. The Roundup will destroy the weeds but leave his crop unscathed, potentially saving him thousands of dollars in tractor fuel and labor.

For Mr. Green and many other beet farmers, it is technology too long delayed. And the engineered beets could clear the way for the eventual planting of other biotech crops like wheat, rice and potatoes, which were also stalled.

Seven years ago, beet breeders were on the verge of introducing Roundup-resistant seeds. But they had to pull back after sugar-using food companies like Hershey and Mars, fearing consumer resistance, balked at the idea of biotech beets. Now, sensing that those concerns have subsided, many processors have cleared their growers to plant the Roundup-resistant beets next spring.

It would be the first new type of genetically engineered food crop widely grown since the 1990s, when biotech soybeans, corn and a few other crops entered the market.

“Basically, we have not run into resistance,” said David Berg, president of American Crystal Sugar, the nation’s largest sugar beet processor. “We really think that consumer attitudes have come to accept food from biotechnology.”

A Kellogg spokeswoman, Kris Charles, said her company “would not have any issues” buying such sugar for products sold in the United States, where she said “most consumers are not concerned about biotech.”

Both Hershey and Mars declined to comment. When it comes to genetically modified crops, there is a reason to keep the introduction of them out of the public eye – to avoid protests. Some opponents of biotechnology are only now getting notice that the sugar beets have been resurrected.

“When I first saw this I said, ‘No, it can’t be,’” said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. “I thought we had already dealt with this.”

His organization issued a call to arms and thousands of identical e-mail messages were sent to Mr. Berg at American Crystal Sugar warning that “profit margins of your company and its supporting farmers” would be hurt by consumer resistance.

Mr. Berg said he still believed that most consumers would accept biotech crops. Mr. Cummins, however, said he would next try to persuade consumers to pressure food companies to boycott the sugar.
柏格說, 他仍然認為,大多數消費者會接受生技作物。但卡明茲說,他接下來會努力說服消費者對食品公司施壓,要他們抵制這種糖。

The genetically engineered seeds will cost at least twice as much as conventional seeds. But Duane Grant, who grows about 2,000 hectares of sugar beets in Rupert, Idaho, said the extra seed outlays would be offset by other savings. He said his annual herbicide costs would drop to $90 a hectare, from $180, and he would no longer have to hire migrant workers to pull weeds by hand.

Mr. Grant, who was designated by the national beet growers’ association as its spokesman on this issue, also said Roundup would have to be sprayed only two or three times during the spring-to-fall growing season, while the existing herbicides must be sprayed five times or more.

Beets account for about half the United States’s sugar supply, with the rest coming from sugar cane. The sugar from beets and cane, generally considered interchangeable, is used in candies, cereals, cakes and numerous other products.

When genetically engineered versions of soybeans and corn – as well as cotton and canola – were introduced in the mid-1990s, farmers quickly adopted them. But opposition to genetically engineered crops then took hold, particularly in Europe. Food companies, fearing protests or loss of customers, pressured farmers not to grow the crops.

Alan G. Dexter, a sugar beet specialist at North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota, said that in a survey he conducted, 57 percent of beet growers cited weeds as their biggest problem. “The sugar beet growers are going to adopt this technology immediately,” he said.

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  • The genetically modified (GM) seeds are known as Roundup Ready because they are not [url=]EX0-101[/url] affected by the herbicide, a powerful mixture that kills field weeds which otherwise diminish beet production and require additional costly herbicide treatments.