Court ruling could hurt Minnesota sugar beet industry

Popular weed-resistant sugar beet strain called into question.

by Luke Feuerherm

A California District Court handed down a ruling last week that has many Minnesotan farmers worried. In siding with the Center for Food Safety, Judge Jeffery S. White stated that the Department of Agriculture should have prepared an environmental impact report regarding a new sugar beet resistant to the herbicide Roundup. Because the beets are resistant to Roundup, it allows farmers to douse them in the herbicide, eliminating the need to pull weeds. This case could carry weighty implications for Minnesota, which produces more sugar beets than any other state, with an economic income of about $3 billion annually . A similar 2007 case regarding Roundup Ready alfalfa led to an injunction, banning farmers from planting the crop. Mirrored results would be devastating to the sugar beet industry which is currently dominated by Roundup Ready beets and is responsible for generating 30 percent of the worldâÄôs sugar. âÄúNinety-five percent of all the sugar beets in the United States and Canada are Roundup Ready sugar beets,âÄù Luther Markwart, the executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, said. The genetically engineered beets have come under scrutiny due to their capacity to corrupt organic sugar beets, as well as organic table beets and Swiss chard because of their genetic similarity. That is, the sugar beet seeds are capable of being carried by wind to other fields where they cross-pollinate with those varieties, and pass on their weed-resistant genes. âÄúWe try to protect against the proliferation of what we think are harmful industrial agricultural methods such as using genetic engineering and pesticides,âÄù said Paige Tomaselli, an attorney for the Center for Food Safety âÄî the group that filed suit against the USDA. The threat of cross-pollination is not an issue in Minnesota, where sugar beets are picked before they produce viable seeds. However, a production freeze in OregonâÄôs Willamette Valley, where Minnesota sugar seeds originate, could prove costly to the state. The state of Minnesota has felt the sting of the new Roundup Ready sugar beets; thanks to Roundup, migrant workers are no longer needed to spray beets to eliminate weeds. âÄúThere hasnâÄôt been any work to do with sugar beets,âÄù said Kyle Smith, Tri-Valley Opportunity Council family service worker. Migrant workers are now turning to the industry most threatened by cross-pollination, the organic sugar beet industry. âÄúFarmers who have elected not to use it, thatâÄôs the only job related to sugar beets for migrant farmers right now,âÄù Smith said. It is this level of weed control that makes Roundup Ready sugar beets an integral part of the industry. âÄúWeâÄôve got the best weed control in the history of sugar beet production,âÄù said Jeff Stachler, agronomist for the University of Minnesota sugar beet extension. Stachler and the University extension support the beet industry with vital research. âÄúWhatever we can do to maximize profit for the sugar beet grower is the type of research and the information we disseminate,âÄù Stachler said. The University, along with farmers, organic advocates and the beet industry, eagerly await further action from the court. The remedy phase will begin Oct. 30, when the California District Court reconvenes to decide the fate of the Roundup Ready sugar beet.