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.'”
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.”