Local farmers breathed a collective sigh of relief this past week when the USDA announced its decision to deregulate genetically engineered sugar beets. This variety of beets, commonly referred to as Roundup ready (RR) sugar beets, is genetically engineered to be resistant to the chemical glyphosate, which is the primary ingredient in the herbicide known under the product name Roundup, which is manufactured by the Monsanto Company.
“After completing both a thorough environmental impact statement and plant pest risk assessment, holding three public meetings and considering and analyzing thousands of comments regarding its analyses, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has determined that, from the standpoint of plant pest risk, RR sugar beets are as safe as traditionally bred sugar beets,” stated the USDA in a release issued on Thursday, July 19.
The Roundup ready sugar beet product was first approved for use in 2004. According to information provided by Monsanto, around 95 percent of all farmers in the country were using it within five years of its introduction to the industry. The product was partially regulated in 2009 after a lawsuit filed by opponents of genetically modified sugar beets who filed a request for a preliminary injunction. Farmers were allowed to continue using the product in a regulated manner while the case was reviewed by the USDA.
“Every grower out there worked hard to comply with the rules during the partial regulation,” said Lovell farmer Brett Crosby. “It was a joint effort by everyone out there, including the USDA for the past four years. I don’t think we would have had a crop at all the last few springs without this technology. The wet weather would have made it impossible.”
Crosby is part of a typical farm family in the area. He and his father and three brothers are farming beets on land that has been in their family for three generations.
“As farmers, we have more people to feed and less real estate to do it with,” explained Crosby. “This type of technology has helped us to keep up with the population because now every crop yields more because of Roundup ready and disease resistant products.”
The Roundup ready product allows plants to grow without competing with weeds, explained Crosby. Farmers use less equipment, less labor, less fuel and less herbicide as a result, and these reduced costs have allowed most to increase their profit margins by a significant amount, Crosby said.
“We’re really glad the USDA did the right thing here because any other decision would have really set us back.”
Crosby notes that since using RR sugar beets farmers like him are yielding as much as 50 percent more beets.
“Less trips across the field means less fuel, less herbicide and less outside labor,” said Deaver farmer Paul Wambeke. “We make less of a carbon footprint, which is good for everyone. It’s a better deal for us all the way around.”
Wambeke farms 190 acres that has been in his family since the early 1900s. He is a third generation beet farmer. His grandfather immigrated to the area specifically to work in the beet fields.
According to Western Sugar Cooperative senior agriculturalist Mark Bjornestad, approximately 2,500 acres in the Lovell area are used to grow beets. That includes eight growing units (mostly family farms) made up of about 20 people who depend on the income from their beet crop as a major source of income.
According to Bjornestad, the most recent sugar campaign processed about 475,000 tons of beets into sugar that was then shipped all over the country. To process those beets into sugar, the plant employs around 40 people year round and around 120 during the campaign itself. An additional 75-80 people are employed during the campaign just to work on the piles of beets that are trucked in from nearby farms to the factory in Lovell. The campaign ending in 2012 was a record year for local farmers, due in part to the technology of the RR sugar beets they have been using for the past several years, said Bjornestad.
“I think the decision to deregulate is very positive for our industry,” said Bjornestad.
The USDA issued the following statement on July 19 explaining the impact of their decision: “With this decision, farmers and distributors can freely move and plant RR sugar beets without further regulatory oversight from APHIS.”
The decision leaves farmers free and clear to do what they do best—grow food for a growing population.
By Patti Carpenter