Monsanto Beets Down Opposition

By Lydersen, Kari | In These Times, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Monsanto Beets Down Opposition


Lydersen, Kari, In These Times


WILLAMETTE VALLEY, ORE.-THE sugar beets growing in farmer Tim Winn's fields do not look menacing. But other farmers in Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley fear the beets could devastate their crops.

Winn's sugar beets have been genetically modified to allow them to survive application of Monsanto's Roundup Ready herbicide. The modification allows Winn to kill weeds in his field with two sprayings of Roundup, rather than the multiple applications of various herbicides he used to use.

Winn and other sugar beet farmers across the country say Roundup Ready sugar beets - which are being grown on a commercial scale for the first time this year - make farmers' work easier and more profitable. And, they claim, there will be environmental benefits because farmers will make fewer passes through fields with a tractor - a point that was made in a 2003 British study published in New Scientist magazine.

But Kevin Golden, staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety, says the unknown long-term environmental risks of genetically modified crops outweigh short-term benefits.

"We admit Roundup is a less toxic alternative than a lot of the herbicides, but weed resistance is developing really fast," Golden says. "Eventually, Roundup becomes obsolete and farmers have to use these really nasty herbicides. It's a self-defeating prophecy to use this as a silver bullet."

And, he notes, the possible human health consequences of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops have not been adequately studied.

"GMOs are only 12 years old. It's a human experiment we don't know the answer to yet," says Golden.

Frank Morton, who distributes organic seeds all over the world from his farm in Philomath, Ore., says Roundup herbicide alters the local soil ecology, including suppressing beneficial fungi that kill pathogens.

"The whole farm system can be affected," Morton says.

Sugar beets supply about half the nation's sugar, and represent a $21 billion industry. Packaged sugar on grocery shelves contains sugar beet and sugar cane. Because sugar is produced in large factories, if Roundup Ready becomes the sugar beet industry standard, it is unlikely any sugar would be available to consumers that does not come partially from GMO beets.

Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, the industry trade group, claims that in most farming areas, contamination would not be an issue because sugar beets are harvested before they go to seed. …

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