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Idaho sugar industry plans a response to GMO critics

Consumer pressure for national companies to switch to non-GMO ingredients is costing Idaho sugar beet farmers business. File photo.

Consumer pressure for national companies to switch to non-GMO ingredients is costing Idaho sugar beet farmers business. File photo.

Consumer pressure for non-genetically modified food products is placing a strain on Idaho sugar beet farmers.

Idaho sugar beet farmers have grown increasingly dependent on genetically modified seeds for cost savings and greater yields over the last decade. But large companies like Hershey are switching from genetically modified beets to traditional beets or cane sugar to fill their needs.

Idaho farmers are now asking if it’s worth growing sugar beets at all, said Garth Taylor, extension specialist at the University of Idaho Department of Agricultural Economics.

“Farmers are saying they won’t go back to hoeing sugar beets,” Taylor said. “They say they would rather farm potatoes or another crop then go back to conventional seeds.”

The pressure to go non-GMO has affected business at Amalgamated Sugar, the Idaho cooperative that is the country’s second biggest producer of sugar made from sugar beets.

“Hershey, Danone and Del Monte – I could show you a list,” said John McCreedy, president of Amalgamated Sugar, which is owned by farmers. “We have lost 15 percent of our customers who used to buy beet sugar and cane sugar interchangeably based on price, quality and delivery service. They will now not buy beet sugar regardless of the price because they want to be able to label their food products non-GMO.”

Many Idaho farmers use a genetically modified seed that is resistant to certain herbicides, engineered by companies like Monsanto. Since 2008, most sugar beet farmers have switched to using genetically modified seeds because it saves them money and produces a higher yield, according to Amalgamated Sugar. McCreedy said the sugar is genetically identical to conventional sugar  because the modified part of the beet, proteins and DNA, is removed when the beet is turned into sugar.

“We think we have the best of both worlds,” McCreedy said. “I say that because we have tremendous productivity on the farm and the net result is a  product that is identical physically and nutritionally to the product we had before genetic engineering.

“There is nothing for the consumer to complain about,” McCreedy said. “If they had a concern about GMOs or genetic engineering it should completely go away when we talk about this product – sugar.

“Sugar has no DNA or protein in it,” he said.

The introduction of genetically modified seeds have helped to improve sugar beet production 63 percent per acre for Amalgamated Sugar’s 750 farmers, and to increase production by 76 percent over the last 20 years, according to the cooperative. The seeds also help farmers save money on diesel fuel and pesticides, McCreedy said.

“If you talk to our growers, they will tell you they won’t go back to conventional seeds,” he said. “They say, ‘I don’t want that lifestyle, I don’t want to scramble for labor to hand hoe and hand weed my fields, and I don’t want to have to put more chemicals on my field.'”

John McCreedy

John McCreedy

Food companies are increasingly moving to non-GMO ingredients for their products.

The food news website Food Navigator USA reported that non-GMO food labels have increased significantly over the last decade. In 2009, 1.9 percent of food and beverage products were labeled non-GMO. In 2015, 15.7 percent of food and beverage products made non-GMO claims.

A Pew Research Center survey found nearly 40 percent of adults believe non-GMO food is safer. There are now 36,000 products carrying a non-GMO label, McCreedy said.

Amalgamated Sugar plans to launch a national campaign about the science behind GMOs, but it is having a hard time convincing other agricultural companies to join its cause, McCreedy said. It’s working with a Washington, D.C. firm on a $30 million-a-year media campaign and has reached out to trade associations representing other highly genetically engineered crops such as corn to raise money, but has only raised $16 million.

“I have been on the war path for the last year trying to get funding,” McCreedy said. “We are having a hard time getting the agricultural community together to finish the funding because the ag economy is bad right now and folks have a difficult time thinking a campaign like this can be successful.”

Amalgamated Sugar earns between $700 million and $900 million a year depending on sugar beet prices. Sugar beets account for 1.7 percent of Idaho’s gross total product and Amalgamated Sugar processes about 7 million tons of sugar beets a year, producing 12 percent of the sugar made in the United States, McCreedy said.

“It has been a little discouraging,” he said. “If we have to we will run a pilot project on our own, but it will take the agricultural community standing steadfast and staying  committed to a long-term educational campaign if we are going to see change.”

About Benton Alexander Smith

Benton Alexander Smith is a reporter for the Idaho Business Review, covering the Idaho Legislature, new business, technology and financial services.

66 comments

  1. The GMO farmers need to wake up. The issue isn’t just about whether it affects human health if you eat it. It is the entire corrupt business ecosystem around it, and the impact to the biological ecosystem around GMO fields. When you say you refuse to go back to hoeing, you are ignoring consumers– you deserve the consequences of your choice. If your customers are going away and non-GMO farmers are beating you, there is no argument that it is economically infeasible to grow non-GMO. If you don’t like hoeing, why are you not looking into solar powered robotic weeding robots. Wake up and untie yourself from Monsanto.

  2. Yes, instead of going ON your food (wash off) , it’s actually going IN your food (can’t wash off). It’s in the very makeup of the plant. Going inside your body. They say it breaks down in the gut but, it has been found in bloodstream and people are developing colorectal cancer at very early ages now as well. It’s more than just suspicion or opinion. All gmo might not be bad but, pesticides and everything else IN the plants? We eat it. are the mentioned chemicals good for us? It’s good though that we all have choices of what we can buy to eat. I think thats what this is about. Food manufacturers also have the choice of what they will accept going into their products. I will have to find out what companies are on that long list going to natural sugars, add them to my ok list to buy from. Finding natural means of controlling insects and weeds would be ideal. All these chemicals are killing us, our environment. Profit for a few men at the expense of millions of people. Not to worry, you can chose to continue to eat that garbage though, go to the drs. Who are dumbfounded by all the illnesses occurring in young people, so they can prescribe more drugs (with long side effects) to treat symptoms only. Thankfully we can chose, it’s just a little late for people who have slowly learned the truth.

  3. do you really hear your selves, in what you are saying. I am no expert, but you talk about pesticides,and chemicals in your food, and along comes some genetically modified seed that you don’t have to use all these pesticides, chemicals, on your food and you think that gmo is a pesticide or chemical come on. step back and us some common sense, which seems to be lacking in this country at the moment. Lets look at is factually and not by somebody’s opinion.

  4. Interesting food for thought … I have a relative that is one of the higher ups for Monsanto and he raises cattle on the side. He injects his herd with GMO’s for the obvious financial gain by doing it. The annual cow that he raises for his own family’s consumption does not get injected with anything. (chalk that one up to “things that make you go Hmmm.”)

    Whether the politicians and billionaires agree or not, and even taking the farmers’ and Monsanto’s position at face value that there is no impact on the sugar, it’s nice to see that the ordinary consumer is beginning to make an impact and have their voice heard. We may wanna re-think the Mexican wall because lord knows us gringos aren’t gonna hoe/pull weeds!

  5. LisaNCali, I had no idea how out of control all this gmo junk was until I read this article and don’t forget our own government poisoning us with fluoride in our water. I’m just glad there are more companies leaning toward the non-gmo now. It’s a start. non-gmo organic would be even better. I now shop for food at places that carry the non-gmo organic.

  6. Wow I can’t believe farmer’s in Idaho are for GMO Sugar Beets. I will stick with C&H sugar and no longer BUY Ocean Spray Cranberry juice Because of the Sugar Beets. No wonder a lot of Individual’s are becoming diabetics!!!! Farmer’s have become Lazy. If you can’t be old school you shouldn’t ever have a farm. You are part of WICKED MONSANTO AND YOU LIKE CALIFORNIA FARMER’S WILL GET CANCER FROM THE DEADLY CHEMICALS !!! MONSANTO ,Bayer and sygenta ARE ELITE’S WHO WANT POPULATION CONTROL WITH THEIR FRANKINFOODS . YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW..

  7. There is plenty of science to indicate serious concerns not to mention the huge monopoly of our food which is a concern OR the concern around the increase of pesticides due to the introduction of these crops. Industry keeps harping that this is not true although it is evident in government reports, audits, stories from around the globe, studies and even farm publications. The lies keep on coming but even with the considerable wealth from the chemical corporations you only need to live near a industrial farmer to know the truth. People are getting sicker……gut diseases have increased dramatically and every disease related to pesticides (from peer reviewed science) has dramatically increased. We are destroying our soil, polluting the water, threatening many species we depend on and still some have this myopic vision that we can continue to foul the nest we live in. Some people might feel fine today but just like smoking tobacco the long term effects will show up and we will all pay a huge price. The global market really does not want this. Corporations are hearing that and will continue to hear it because of all of these reasons. Keep lying to us. It just makes us more determined that we are right to change the system to one that is recommended to us by the United Nations…….we still have a few leaders who have integrity. Entire nations have made commitments to change their farming practices to something that is truly sustainable. WAKE UP before its too late.

  8. The Georg-August-University of Goettingen in Germany doesn’t prattle

  9. And the Big GMO prattle continues.

  10. Annie – GMOs dramatically reduce chemical pesticide use by 37%
    A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops

    Even the glyphosate resistance reduced overall input. Although that gmo might have increased the amount of glyphosate used, it replaced many older herbicides such as Dicamba, Trifluralin, Metribuzin, pendimethalin, linuron, bentazon, alachlor, butylate, bromoxynil, and metolachlor.

    If you ban gmos and glyphosate tomorrow, those herbicides will be used again at higher rates.

  11. “Pesticides”? Quick look over there squirrel!

  12. Ahh yes CRISPR on humans – Dr Frankenstein.

  13. i am astounded at the obvious absence of the mention of pesticide applications to GM crops. if big ag loves GM technology so much then ALL aspects should be discussed.

  14. Sir,calling my statement a lie is apology worthy. I can purchase organic certified, non-gmo red grapefruits, anytime and in any grocery store. A plant that was bombarded with thermal neutrons generating random mutations. Where’s your level of precision in that? There are no studies in rats, digestibility tests, or allergically tests. Yet, I’ve been shoveling one in my mouth every morning for years and I feel great.

    To say “we don’t know the result” and meaning it’s not precise is pretty brazenly ignorant given the fact that CRISPRs are now being considered for treating rare human embryo diseases. Demonstrate to me how mutagenesis is less risky. The CRISPR system is a defined system with predictable targets and off-targets. The genome can be checked with sequencing.

    Show my statement to be a lie and demonstrate to me how mutagenesis, an acceptable breeding method for organic, is more precise. Also, please cite science articles instead of someone who hasn’t published in 20 years giving opinions on his own platform.

  15. USDA just doesn’t want to deal with GE, no one does, until it’s too late. It’s just irresponsible.
    it would be most impressive to see scientific community working to preserve earth health instead of picking it apart and coming up with concoctions which are poisoning it to death. Sick Earth=sick people. And no, pharmaceutical companies, we don’t need more of your long list side effects drugs . Bayer, poisoning us = selling more drugs.