Modified sweet beet seeds leave many sour

SOURCE: The Oregon City News, USA
AUTHOR: Toby van Fleet
DATE: 02. 12.2008

Groups sue USDA over environmental impact of variey that is resistant to herbicide

Even sugar starts with a seed.

And like most agricultural activities, the long process that turns a seed into sugar goes on quietly, without most of us taking much notice until we taste something sweet.

Half of the sugar consumed in the United States comes from sugar beets.

And more than 90 percent of sugar beet seeds are grown right here in the Willamette Valley, as part of a robust seed-growing economy that includes vegetable and flower seed, and " ask any sniffly valley dweller in the spring " grass seed.

Now sugar beet seed is getting a lot of attention after word among area seed growers revealed that the majority of this year's crop probably would be genetically modified.

While the use of certain types of genetically modified seed already is approved, some farmers, environmentalists, food safety advocates and consumers remain concerned about potentially harmful effects on human health and the environment.

".This is going to cause more kinds of trouble than you can even imagine" says Frank Morton, a Corvallis-area seed grower who owns Wild Garden Seed. ".It's inevitable that genetic contamination will happen".

Last month, a coalition of groups, including the Sierra Club and the Center for Food Safety, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture challenging the USDA's 2005 approval of biotech giant Monsanto's genetically engineered variety of sugar beet seed called ".Roundup Ready".

The seed is designed to be immune to the wrath of the popular herbicide Roundup, also made by Monsanto. This means farmers need to be less careful when and where they spray Roundup. Roundup Ready corn and soybeans already are widely grown " and consumed " in the U.S.

The suit charges that the USDA did not adequately assess potential environmental impacts of the Roundup Ready sugar beet, including issues of cross-pollination and herbicide resistance in weeds.

One trade group supports the use of the seed.

".We believe the USDA did a good job in the deregulation of the sugar beet" says Tom Schwartz, executive vice president of the Beet Sugar Development Foundation, whose membership consists of sugar beet seed and processing companies in the U.S. and Canada. ".We believe in the science".

".Our issue isn't with these companies; it's with the USDA" said Matthew Dillon, director of advocacy at the Organic Seed Alliance, which joined the suit.

The Organic Seed Alliance is hosting a conference this week in Salem. Local, national and international speakers will address a variety of seed topics from production and harvesting to disease control to crop isolation and contamination.

It's hard to control pollen

Contamination is a term used when two different seed varieties cross, as in the case of wind blowing pollen from one field to another.

Sugar beets can cross-pollinate with the beets we eat (table beets). They also can cross with Swiss chard. When that happens, and the resulting seed is planted, chard can show up in a beet field and vice versa.

The Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Crops Association is a self-governing group that represents the companies that buy the various seed crops grown in the valley. The seed is sold to sugar companies who contract with growers all over the country to grow the beets.

The association administers what is called a ".pinning". system, which allows companies to isolate area seed growers from one another in order to avoid cross-pollination among different varieties.

Roundup Ready, Schwartz says, is just another variety.

But critics say it's not that simple because, unlike chard in a field of beets, modified genes are invisible.

".In a perfect world there would be no cross-contamination" says Rick North, project director of the Campaign for Safe Food, which operates through the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. ".But the wind doesn't recognize that".

And in the case of organic seed crossing with genetically engineered seed, it's more complicated. When the USDA created the National Organic Program in 2002 to standardize the organic label, it disallowed genetically modified products.

That means that if Roundup Ready pollen found its way into organic seed grower Morton's beet or chard seed, his crop would be unmarketable.

".Beets and chard are definitely some of the staple crops that we grow year-round" says Laura Masterson, owner of 47th Avenue Farm, which supplies regular boxes of organic produce to 100 annually subscribing families (about 500 more are on a waiting list) and also sells to Portland restaurants, including Nostrana and Navarre.

".Frank (Morton) is one of the very few growers who are growing seed for the kind of farming we're doing" she says, explaining that Morton breeds for regionally specific climate tolerance and disease resistance, plus flavor and color.

".We can't depend on chemicals" she says. ".We have to depend on good genetics".

Concerns for food supply

In addition to the valley-centric contamination concern, critics of genetically modified crops say that the food may not be safe to eat.

While genetically engineered crops have been used for decades, and now make up the majority of both soy and corn grown in the U.S., North says there's still no way to track potential health repercussions because the food isn't labeled.

Having spent 21 years working for the American Cancer Society, North points out the link between tobacco and cancer. Even with an obvious causation like that, he says, it could take 20 to 40 years to show up.

".It should not be on the market right now because there are so many unknowns" North says.

Schwartz says that sugar beet companies believe the Roundup Ready beets are safe, and that science proves that the sugar they produce is molecularly identical to that which comes from nongenetically modified sugar beets.

Further, although the lawsuit points to studies showing that Roundup Ready crops are causing weeds to become resistant to the herbicide, causing more herbicide to be used, Schwartz says that growers already deal with herbicide resistance issues and that it's not a problem particular to Roundup.

".It's good for our growers and it's good for the environment" says Schwartz of the Roundup Ready seed.

Lisa Weasel, a biology professor at Portland State University, has been researching genetically engineered food around the world for the last four years. She's writing a book about it, due out next fall.

She says that consumers in Europe and Japan don't want genetically modified food.

".Anytime there's contamination, that poses a huge threat to exports" she says.

But Schwartz says that Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand already have approved the import of sugar and animal-feed products made from the Roundup Ready sugar beets.

Masterson disagrees. ".The kind of food people want to eat and want to buy is the kind of food that Frank is growing" she says. ".If that GM seed crosses, he can't sell it to us".

But Morton sees a bigger picture.

".This is not an organic versus GM industry issue" he says. ".This is a Willamette Valley conventional specialty-seed industry versus newfangled technology issue".