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Biotech sugar beet challenge may be just the beginning

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Western Nebraska farmer Nick Lapaseotes describes how sugar beets are harvested. (Photo by Clay Masters)
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Reporter, Iowa Public Radio
Clay Masters reports for Iowa Public Radio. His stories have appeared on NPR's news magazines "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered."

The U.S. sugar beet industry — which supplies about half the country’s sugar — is at the heart of a biotech challenge that could pose a test for larger commodity crops as well.

At issue is a genetically engineered sugar beet seed known as Roundup ready.  Biotech giant Monsanto in 2005 introduced the seed, which is designed to withstand large amounts of the weed-killing herbicide without affecting the crop.

“The industry switched like that,” said Michael Fromm, director of the Center for Biological Technology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, snapping his fingers. “They say it’s the fastest adoption rate of any biotech crop that’s gone from nothing to 95 percent in two years, which is pretty phenomenal.”

Watch farmers Nick Lapaseotes and Darby Jespersenharvest sugar beets in western Nebraska. (Video by Clay Masters)

But the Center for Food Safety, along with organic seed producers, sued the U.S. Department of

Agriculture, arguing that the agency didn’t look at the potential impact of cross-pollination before it approved the use of the seed.

And this fall, a federal judge ruled that sugar beet farmers can’t plant the Roundup ready seed until the USDA performs that analysis.

The plaintiffs are hanging the case on pollen blowing from a Roundup ready crop onto an organic seed producer’s field and cross-pollinating. This would hinder organic farmers’ exports to countries that won’t accept genetically modified crops.

The USDA predicts that U.S. sugar production could be cut by 20 percent if farmers can’t plant the genetically modified crop.

Farmers are concerned.

“If we didn’t have that technology we’d have about a 10 percent decrease in our yield,” said Darby Jespersen, a sugar beet farmer in Hemmingford, Neb. “But then on the input cost side of it, we’d probably have about $75- 80 an acre.”

 He noted that before the genetically modified sugar beet was developed, beet farmers would have to spray their fields with herbicides four times a year, only stunting the weeds.

Fromm, at the Center for Biological Technology, said the challenge has nothing to do with safety.

“It’s a rule basically that they’ve just put in place, and because of those rules it raises the issue of the organic farmers have a high hurdle to keep their seed production fields far enough away from GMO crops and that’s the heart of the problem,” he said.

But because this is a question of the rules, the challenge could be expanded to larger commodity crops like corn and soybeans.

“ You have to look at what’s going to happen in the future with these larger crops – the corn, the soy and the cotton, which span the entire country and grown everywhere,” said Paige Thomaseli, a staff attorney with the Center for Food Safety, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “ One lens to look at it through is the smaller crops and the GE sugar beets is an example we have to look at right now.”

 The same genetically engineered gene that is used to make a sugar beet seed Roundup ready is the same gene for soybean.

Thomaseli said the larger commodity crops are harder to go after because the government approved the planting of genetically engineered seeds a decade ago. But, she added, if the sugar beet case stops the use of the seeds, it may provide an opening.

“With new genetically engineered varieties of corn and soy, stacked varieties that have several different herbicides in them, those can be challenged and may be challenged,” she said.

The USDA, meanwhile, plans to have interim rules governing genetically modified sugar beets in place by the end of the year. The plaintiffs in the case will then assess the rules and processes before determining whether or not to sue again.

And it’s not just the sugar beet industry that will be watching.