After seven years of keeping sugar from genetically modified sugar beets out of their food, Kellogg, Hershey’s and the Wyoming based American Crystal Sugarwill use sugar made from genetically modified (GM) beets.
The decision marks a turnaround for Crystal Sugar, the nation’s largest sugar producer, which declared in May of this year that it had no plans to use GM sugar beets, and indicated that herbicide-resistant varieties developed using biotechnology would not “be sold, given away, distributed, or planted in year 2007.”
But according to a recent article in the glyphosate based herbicide Roundup is widely used to kill weeds, but is strong enough to kill crops. A genetically modified beet is resistant to Roundup, allowing farmers to kill the weeds and keep the beets.
But the health risks of glyphosate are poorly understood. Some studies have connected glyphosate exposure to cancer, organ damage in animals, human reproduction and fetal development. Glyphosate has also created super-weeds, resistant to the herbicide much like humans are becoming resistant to some antibiotics. Genetically modified foods can also spread and interbreed with non-GM crops, reducing crop diversity and creating other, uncontrollable super-weeds.
While the ecological and health issues are debated, the often overlooked factor in the increasing use of GM seed and food is that it gives Monsanto a great deal of control over the production of food. A handful of corporations like Monsanto are involved in agricultural biotechnology. Their products of genetically modified corn, soybeans and sugar beets are then patented much like the work of other inventors in order to limit the way seeds can be used and distributed. Biotech patents have been controversial however because the companies are patenting biology, DNA, the basic structure of life and then claiming it as their invention in order to sell it.
These patents have already caused problems for farmers and ranchers. In the last decade, farmers whose non-GM crops inadvertently breed with Monsanto’s Genetically Modified and patent protected crops have actually been sued for illegally growing Monsanto’s seed. In 2000, Monsanto sued a Canadian farmer when a neighboring farm’s Roundup Ready crops went to seed and mixed with the their crops. Nelson Farms of North Dakota is also being sued for saving Roundup Ready seed and planting it the next year. While saving seed is the ancient and core practice of farming, farmers sign a Monsanto agreement not to save or share any seed.
While organizations like the Organic Consumers Organization’s Millions Against Monsanto campaign against biotechnology, Monsanto continues to develop new seed technologies. As it expands the number of patents it has on those technologies it will also expand its power to sue individual producers and control the market. In doing so, Vandana Shiva, a physicist, farmers’ rights activist and author of Monocultures of the Mind argues that farmers and ranchers using GM seeds will continue to find themselves limited by GM seed rather than enabled by it. As she writes, “Corporate strategies and products can lead to diversification of commodities; they cannot enrich nature’s diversity.”
Even so, the Rocky Mountain West has become a testing ground for genetically modified foods. In 2001 Roundup Ready wheat was grown in fields in Idaho and Washington and GM alfalfa grown in Idaho. Genetically modified beets have already been grown on 300 acres in Idaho during test trials for Monsanto and another 2,200 acres in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin.
While sugar beet farmers await the outcome of these trials and the products full release next year, the sugar industry is keeping a low profile about their use of GM beets in order to reduce the chance of a public outcry according to the New York Times. To further protect its interests, Monsanto recently hired Parven Pomper Schulyer Inc. to lobby the federal government on agriculture, trade and tax issues. Those registered to lobby for Monsanto include Brian Pomper, who served as chief international trade counsel for Montana Senator Max Baucus from 1997 to 2003, Beau Schuyler, who was legislative director to Rep. John Tanne; and Melissa Wier, former assistant to the chief of staff to Sen. Tom Carper.
With this effort and continued growth in GM foods, Monsanto “expects to double the gross profit potential of business from the end of 2007 through 2012.”