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.
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 900 acres in beets in St. Thomas, N.D.
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 pave the way for the eventual planting of other biotech crops like wheat, rice and potatoes, which were also stalled on the launching pad.
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, though, 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.”
If some other big food companies are now open to genetically modified sugar, though, they are not talking about it. Both Hershey and Mars declined to comment. “There’s just nothing we have to say on the topic,” a Mars spokeswoman said.
Many sugar refiners and seed developers also refused to comment, hewing to an industrywide plan to coordinate the introduction of the genetically engineered beets and carefully control what is said about them.
When it comes to genetically modified crops, there is a reason to keep one’s corporate head low — to avoid protests. Some opponents of biotechnology are only now getting wind 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 received 681 messages in a 24-hour period before having the e-mail blocked. He 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. “I don’t think companies like Hershey are going to want any more hassles than they already have,” he said, referring to recent earnings pressure and management turmoil at the chocolate company.
About 10,000 American farmers grow sugar beets on about 1.3 million acres, mainly in Northern states from Oregon to Michigan. That makes the beets a minor crop compared with corn, at about 90 million acres, and soybeans, at almost 70 million.
And yet beets account for about half the nation’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, although some food manufacturers have switched to high-fructose corn syrup, which is cheaper.
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.
Sugar was not the only crop affected. Insect-resistant potatoes developed by Monsanto were withdrawn from the market in 2001 after fast-food companies resisted them. Monsanto gave up on developing Roundup-resistant wheat in 2004, in part because American wheat farmers feared losing exports. The rice industry, also heavily dependent on exports, has never grown herbicide-tolerant varieties.
Even if the situation has now changed for sugar, however, other crops might still meet resistance. For one thing, sugar is a refined product that contains no DNA or proteins, just the chemical sucrose. “While the sugar beet is genetically different, the sugar is the same,” said Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association and co-chairman of the Sugar Industry Biotech Council.
By contrast, the foreign DNA and proteins in genetically modified wheat, rice or potatoes can be eaten by consumers, which at least theoretically raises food safety questions.
Moreover, only about 3 percent of American sugar is exported, Mr. Markwart said, compared with about half of wheat and rice.
The sugar industry’s organizational structure also helps. Virtually all sugar processors — the companies that buy the beets from farmers and then extract the sugar and sell it — are owned by the farmers themselves. That makes them more likely to accept the biotech crops than an independent processor might be.
Among farmers, demand for the Roundup Ready beets, as they are known, is expected to be strong. “The sugar beet growers are going to adopt this technology immediately,” said Alan G. Dexter, the extension sugar beet specialist at North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota. In a survey he conducted, 57 percent of beet growers cited weeds as their biggest problem, with diseases the distant runner-up at 16 percent.
The seeds will be most attractive to those with the biggest weed problems. With a technology fee of a little more than $100 per 100,000 seeds paid to Monsanto, the genetically engineered seeds will cost at least twice as much as conventional seeds. That translates to about $50 to $65 in extra seed costs per acre.
But Duane Grant, who grows about 5,000 acres 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 $35 an acre, from $70, and he would no longer have to hire migrant workers to pull weeds by hand, at a cost of $35 to $150 an acre.
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. The existing herbicides are decades old and some weeds have developed resistance to them, Mr. Grant said.
Some weed experts say there are also some weeds resistant to Roundup and its generic equivalent, glyphosate, as a consequence of the heavy use of the herbicide spurred by the proliferation of Roundup Ready crops. But such weeds are not found in beet fields, Mr. Grant said.
He said that with conventional beets, Roundup can be used only before the seedlings emerge from the ground, because after that the Roundup would kill them.
Bringing back the biotech beets took a long, coordinated effort involving Monsanto, seed companies, growers, processors and trade groups under the auspices of the Sugar Industry Biotech Council.
Rival seed companies all agreed to use seeds descended from a single genetic transformation done by Monsanto and KWS, a German seed company. That meant the industry had to win federal approval only once. The new genetically engineered sugar beet was reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration in 2004 and approved for unrestricted growing by the Agriculture Department in early 2005.
And before planting the beets, farmers have waited for approvals in other important markets. Just last month Europe approved the beets for food and feed use, although not for planting.
Because such foods would have to be labeled in Europe as containing genetically engineered ingredients, some American food companies might use cane sugar, which is not genetically modified, for products they export to Europe. But in the United States, foods containing sugar made from biotech beets would not have to be labeled.
The sugar beet industry conducted field trials in Idaho last year and Michigan this year. Mr. Grant, who was part of the Idaho test, said the biotech seeds actually had slightly higher yields and sugar output than very similar conventional varieties.
Some environmentalists say the use of Roundup on sugar beets could contribute to the growing problem of Roundup-resistant weeds. But the Agriculture Department said it expected little, if any, environmental effect from growing the beets.
One factor that could help keep the trait from spreading is that beets produce seeds only in their second year, after passing through a winter. So beets grown in most parts of the country never produce seeds, because farmers harvest beets every fall and plant new seeds the next spring.
But in California, beets stay in the ground through the winter and there are weeds that can mate with sugar beets. So growers there may be more cautious about the Roundup revolution.
“We have to make sure we don’t cause ourselves more problems than we’re curing,” said Ben Goodwin, executive manager of the California Beet Growers Association.
Story written by Andrew Pollack for the New York Times