GENETICALLY MODIFIED SUGAR BEETS:
A BAD BET (AT THE WORST TIME)
The US sugar beet
industry is threatening to venture into the world of genetically
modified (GM) crops, hoping to introduce a new gene-spliced variety by
Monsanto as early as spring 2008. But if the experience of the last
decade is any indication, such a move will lead to huge economic losses
for the sugar industry and even for US food companies who use sugar as
an ingredient. Moreover, the timing for such an introduction couldn’t
be worse. GM sugar would be dispersed through the food supply in early
2009, just as the new president is sworn in. If he or she is a
democrat, which is likely, then mandatory labeling of GM foods will
soon follow. And more than 50% of Americans have said they would reject
GM foods if given a choice. But even without mandatory labeling, there
is a significant industry and consumer effort underway to remove all
remaining GM ingredients from the natural food industry, and to provide
consumers with handy non-GMO shopping guides. And if that weren’t
enough, the recent evidence confirming that GM foods are dangerous to
inspiring more and more physicians to prescribe non-GM diets to their
patients. With all this, how the can sugar beet industry be serious
about GM sugar beets? It appears that they are relying on Monsanto and
the biotech industry for critical information. Oops.
BIOTECH PROMISES COME UP SHORT
For more than a decade, biotech advocates spread promises of an unprecedented economic boom, but according to the
San Francisco Chronicle, most of their hoopla remains “in the ‘promise’ category - and has been each year.”
Their “smorgasbord of marketing claims,” writes the
Asia Times, just adds to “the credibility problems that are piling up against genetic engineering.”
The Wall Street Journal
reported, “Not only has the biotech industry yielded negative financial
returns for decades, it generally digs its hole deeper every year.”
Associated Press says it “remains a money-losing, niche industry.”
In spite of their poor
track record, advocates continue to convince politicians and others to
invest in their infant technology. “This notion that you lure biotech
to your community to save its economy is laughable,” said Joseph
Cortright, an Oregon economist who co-wrote a report on the subject.
“This is a bad-idea virus that has swept through governors, mayors and
economic development officials.”
Nowhere in the biotech
world is the bad-idea virus more toxic than in its application to GM
plants. Not only does the technology under-deliver, it consistently
burdens governments and entire sectors with losses and problems.
Canadian National Farmers Union
, “Corporate and government managers have spent millions trying to convince farmers and other citizens of the benefits of genetically-modified crops. But this huge public relations effort has failed to obscure the truth: GM crops do not deliver the promised benefits; they create numerous problems, costs, and risks.”
US AND CANADA LOSE BIG-TIME WITH GMOS
the first politicos hypnotized by biotech’s charm were in the White
House during the first Bush administration. Vice President Dan Quayle
chaired the elite Council on Competitiveness, which chose to fast track
GM food in hopes that it would strengthen the economy and make American
products more competitive overseas. The opposite ensued.
In Europe, virtually
the entire food manufacturing and retail industry responded to consumer
pressure by banning GM ingredients. Because of the difficulty of
segregating GM from non-GM crops, importers simply rejected
all food crops from the US if
of that species were modified. US corn exports to Europe, for example,
have been virtually eliminated, down by 99.4 percent, even though the
US produces plenty of non-GM corn. The American Corn Growers
Association (ACGA) calculated that the introduction of GM corn caused a
drop in corn prices by 13 to 20%.
Their CEO said, “The ACGA believes an explanation is owed to the
thousands of American farmers who were told to trust this technology,
yet now see their prices fall to historically low levels while other
countries exploit US vulnerability and pick off our export customers
one by one.”
US soy sales also plummeted due to GM content.
When Canada became the
only major producer to adopt GM canola in 1996, it led to a disaster
there as well. The premium-paying EU market, which took about one-third
of Canada’s canola exports in 1994 and one-fourth in ’95, stopped all
imports from Canada by 1998. The GM canola was diverted to the
low-priced Chinese market. Not only did Canadian canola prices fall to
a record low,
even lost their EU honey exports due to the GM pollen contamination.
The Canadian NFU warns, “Closing markets and falling prices threaten to
overwhelm any small, short-term economic benefits that GM crops or
livestock may offer.”
Four major GM crops
comprise 99.9% of GM acreage: soy, corn, cotton, and canola. All four
have varieties engineered to survive applications of specific
herbicides. For example, if you spray Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide onto
natural soybean plants, they die. But Monsanto’s patented “Roundup
Ready” soybeans survive. About 71% of all GM crops in the world are
herbicide tolerant. The sugar beets planned for 2008 are Roundup Ready.
Cotton and corn have also been engineered to produce a pesticide—called
Bt-toxin—in every cell. About 18% of GM plants are Bt crops. Another
11% are engineered with both of these traits.
papaya is different. Genes are inserted into its DNA so the plant
resists a disease called the ring-spot virus. Hawaiian farmers,
politicians, and scientists succumbed to the bad-idea virus and
introduced the papaya in 1997 hoping it would “save the industry.”
Japan, which had been consuming 60% of Hawaii’s market,
shut its doors to the unwanted GM variety. The papaya price immediately
dropped from $1.23 per kilo to just $.89, and has since fallen below 80
cents—well under production costs. The islands have lost half of their
and 28% of papaya acreage.
According to a 2006 article in
The Honolulu Advertiser,
papaya production sank to a more than 25-year low last year despite
record demand among US consumers for the tropical fruit.”
papaya, however, consistently sells for more than the GM variety.
Although the GM papaya is still on the market, other failures in the
US— GM tomatoes and potatoes—have been removed.
GM crops not only close
markets and plunge prices, they force governments to shell out huge
sums. According to Charles Benbrook, PhD, former executive director of
the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Agriculture, the US
government payments to farmers are up by $3 to $5 billion annually due
to GM crops.
He says growers have only been kept afloat by the huge jump in subsidies.
Those farmers who stick
with non-GM varieties are also penalized, as market prices drop across
the board. If farmers want to keep their non-GM buyers, they typically
have to spend more on GMO testing, buffer zones, and segregation
systems including separate storage and shipping channels. Even then,
they risk contamination and lost sales.
if GM sugar beets are introduced, even food manufacturers who use
non-GM sugar may be penalized. For products exported to the EU, for
example, their law stipulates that sugar derived from GM beets would
have to be labeled as containing genetically modified ingredients.
Given the current purchasing guidelines by European importers, any US
export that contains sugar would not be accepted unless the
manufacturer implements a costly traceability program to verify that no
GM sugar beets were used.
Herbicide tolerant crops generally lower average yields. As elsewhere, US farmers had expected higher yields with Roundup Ready soybeans, but independent studies confirm a yield loss of 4-11%.
Brazilian soybean yields are also down since Roundup Ready varieties were introduced.
In Canada, a study showed a 7.5% lower yield with Roundup Ready canola.
GM FARMERS SUFFER
biotech companies have been quite successful in convincing farmers that
GM crops are the ticket to greater yields and higher profits. But the
Canadian NFU flatly states, “The claim that GM seeds make our farms more profitable is false.”
farm incomes in Canada plummeted since the introduction of GM canola,
with the last five years being the worst in Canada’s history.
average GM crop reduces yield. Even a US Department of Agriculture
(USDA) 2006 report stated that “currently available GM crops do not
increase the yield potential of a hybrid variety. . . . In fact, yield
may even decrease if the varieties used to carry the herbicide tolerant
or insect-resistant genes are not the highest yielding cultivars.”
Most of the Bt corn in the US is designed to kill the European corn borer. According to the US National Academy of Sciences,
Bt corn was available, only 5.2% of corn acreage was sprayed to protect
against the corn borer. The reason, in part, was because the yield loss
associated with the pest is only about 4%—not worth the cost of the
pesticides. Further, insect infestation is intermittent, not consistent
in every season.
much larger number of farmers, however, now use Bt corn as an insurance
policy, just in case their area gets infested during the growing
season. According to the USDA, “adoption of Bt corn had a negative
impact on net returns among specialized corn farms.” This was likely
due to the fact that “the value of protections against the European
corn borer was lower than” the higher costs paid for the Bt seed. The
USDA “could not find positive financial impacts in either the
field-level nor the whole-farm analysis” for adoption of Bt corn and
Roundup Ready soybeans. They said, “Perhaps the biggest issue raised by
these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of [GM] crops when
farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative.”
HERBICIDE TOLERANT CROPS LOWER YIELDS AND INCREASE HERBICIDE USE
convenience factor of herbicide tolerant crops is now giving way to a
nuisance factor of herbicide tolerant weeds. Overuse of Roundup has is
causing a huge problem of weeds that are resistant to its active
ingredient glyphosate. Herbicide use in the US was up 138 million
pounds in the first nine years after GM crops were introduced.
That increase is accelerating, with approximately 120 million more pounds used in years 10 and 11.
Roundup Ready soybeans are also associated with higher herbicide use in
Brazil. As weeds fail to respond to Roundup, farmers rely on more toxic
pesticides. Over the past two years, for example, use of the highly
toxic 2,4-D was up by 237% in the US.
UNPREDICTED PROBLEMS PLAGUE GM COTTON
erratic performance of GM cotton illustrates the unpredictable nature
of genetic engineering. When Monsanto’s GM cotton varieties were first
introduced in the US, tens of thousands of acres suffered deformed
roots and other problems, forcing the company to pay out millions in
In China, Bt cotton appeared to offer higher net returns, better yields, and pesticide reduction when first introduced in 1997.
By 2004, however, the cotton became more susceptible to other
non-target pests, resulting in damage and forcing farmers to spray
15-20 times more than before. According to a Cornell University study,
Bt farmers in China are now earning significantly less than non-Bt
Indonesia, Bt cotton was also overrun with pests and other problems and
was kicked out of the country (in spite of the Monsanto’s bribes to 140
officials over 5 years to try to get their cotton approved.)
In Andhra Pradesh, India, because Bt cotton yields were down the first year by 52% and performance was unpredictable over the next two, non-Bt farmers earned 60% more over that time.
There was a long list of problems associated with the GM variety,
including failure to germinate, drought damage, root-rot, leaf curl
virus, brittle stems, increased pests, smaller bolls, increased labor
requirements per acre, and a shorter harvest season.
The Maharashtra State
Department of Agriculture also reported “the average boll weight” was
less and “the staple length of the Bt cotton” was shorter, so that Bt
cotton sold for “lower prices.”
The Andhra Pradesh Agriculture Minister demanded that Monsanto pay recompense for farmers losses,
Bt varieties were banned by state governments, and official reports
showed massive losses. Monsanto nonetheless continues to claim that its
Bt cotton is performing well. They commissioned their crop evaluation
studies, however, using market research agencies, not scientists. One
report, for example, claimed 4 times the actual reduction in pesticide
use, 12 times the actual yield, and 100 times the actual profit
Angry, indebted Indian farmers held violent street protests, burned seed outlets, and even
“tied up . . . Monsanto representatives in their villages,” until the police rescued them.
Thousands of Bt cotton farmers also committed suicide—the rate in one region was one suicide every eight hours.
spite of biotech industry assurances that contamination wouldn’t be a
problem, it has been a consistent and often overwhelming hardship for
seed dealers, farmers, manufacturers, even whole food sectors. The
biotech industry recommends buffer zones between fields, but these have
not been competent to protect non-GM, organic, or wild plants from
GMOs. A UK study showed canola cross-pollination occurring as far as 16
pollination is just one of several ways that contamination happens.
There is also seed movement by weather and insects, crop mixing during
harvest, transport, and storage, and very often, human error. The
contamination in North America is so great, it is difficult for farmers
to secure pure non-GM seed. In Canada, a study found 32 of 33 certified
non-GM canola seeds were contaminated.
Most of the non-GM soy, corn, and canola seeds tested in the US also contained GMOs.
can be very expensive. For example, StarLink corn—unapproved for human
consumption—ended up the US food supply in 2000. More than 300 packaged
food products were subject to recall and the total cost of the debacle
was estimated at more than $1 billion.
Numerous smaller scale contamination episodes hurt or ruin businesses every month.
escapes of experimental GM crops from small trials can devastate an
industry. An unapproved GM rice variety, last field trialed in 2001,
was discovered in US rice stocks in 2006. Within two days of the
announcement, US rice futures dropped $150 million and the final price
tag for industry is estimated at $1.2 billion.
Thailand, even news that “some GM papayas were removed from the Khon
Kaen research centre” caused a loss of the European market. A papaya
grower said, “Importers cancelled orders and never asked for Thai
from Hawaiian papaya trials also preceded commercialization there,
where the GM variety eventually caused massive contamination. In one
study, 50% of the organic and wild papayas tested were genetically
also occurs year to year in the same field. About 10% of canola seeds,
for example, fall to the ground and are not harvested. They can
germinate in subsequent years as “volunteer” crops. A UK study showed
that if a farmer plants GM canola for one year and non-GM thereafter,
unless he undertakes stringent control measures, his or her harvest
will continue to have more than 1% GM contamination for about 16 years.
farmer rotates from GM canola to another crop, he has another problem.
GM canola is herbicide tolerant. Killing the volunteer crops may
require using more toxic herbicides. In Canada, there are three
herbicide tolerant varieties—two GM and one conventional. Due to cross
pollination, studies have found canola that is resistant to
all three types of herbicides.
But it gets worse. Canola can cross pollinate with several weedy
relatives such as wild mustard. Now these pollinated weeds have also
developed resistance to weed killers and become “super weeds.”
is no technology to fully eradicate GM contamination from the
environmental gene pool. Thus, the self-propagating genetic pollution
caused by today’s GMOs could theoretically outlast the effects of
global warming and nuclear waste.
GM FREE ZONES POP UP AROUND THE WORLD
natural response of farmers and governments around the world to the
threat of GMOs has been to create GM free zones, moratoria, or other
types of restrictions.
Monsanto pushed hard to introduce GM wheat, the North American wheat
industry, which had witnessed the fall of the corn, soy, and canola
markets, were up in arms. More than 80 percent of US and Canadian
foreign wheat buyers said they didn’t want GM wheat and might shop
elsewhere if it were introduced. An Iowa State University economist
projected a loss of 30-50% of the US wheat exports and a drop in prices
by about a third.
than 200 groups, including the US and Canadian National Farmers Unions,
the Canadian Wheat Board, and the American Corn Growers Association,
lobbied against Monsanto. They wanted North America to be a
GM-wheat-free-zone. Monsanto withdrew its application on May 10, 2004.
Hawaii coffee growers realized that GM coffee might destroy its premium
market, it successfully lobbied for the University of Hawaii not to
develop any varieties. Leaders in the rice, potato, flax, and sugar
beet industries have also protected themselves by successfully blocking
then 4500 jurisdictions on Europe have created GM free resolutions or
laws, and countries and regions in every continent similarly have
growing restrictions or complete bans.
SWIMMING AGAINST THE TIDE
State University a few years ago, a memo was circulated to faculty and
staff encouraging them to promote to farmers the idea of selling
according to what the market wants. But there was an added point. GMOs
were specifically cited as the exception! The very pro-GMO “land grant”
university, which receives funding from the biotech industry, wanted
their staff to promote GMOs knowing that they have been overwhelmingly
rejected by consumers, retailers, and food companies since introduced
depth of market rejection,” according to the Washington D.C. based
Center for Food Safety, “is arguably unparalleled by any other consumer
McGuire, Program Director of the American Corn Growers Association
says, “Even in the face of all these negative market signals, it
appears that some in the US are willing to promote biotechnology no
matter how negative the impact is on US exports and commodity prices.
That arrogant strategy is turning out to be a ‘market development in
reverse’ program.” ACGA’s CEO adds, “An explanation is also owed
our foreign customers on why the United States isn’t leading the effort
to promote and sell the type of commodities and products they want and
NON-GMO TIDAL WAVE EXPECTED
January 1999 conference in the US, a biotech company spokesperson
projected a 95% conversion of all commercial seeds into GMOs within
five years. Anderson Consulting also announced that they were working
on a strategy for their client, Monsanto, whose stated ideal future was
to genetically engineer 100% of all commercial seeds in the world.
weeks, that ideal future crashed. On February 16, the UK parliament
invited GMO researcher Arpad Pusztai to testify, forcing his former
employer to lift their gag order. When Pusztai started speaking about
his controversial discoveries about the inherent health dangers of
GMOs, the press erupted. By week’s end, they had written 159 “column
feet” of text, which, according to one columnist, “divided society into
two warring blocs.”
April 1999, overwhelming consumer resistance to GM foods compelled
Unilever to publicly commit to remove ingredients from its European
brands. Within a week, nearly all major food companies followed suit.
same corporations that removed GMOs from their European lines continue
to sell them in the US, where only 1 in 4 consumers believe they have
ever eaten a GM food in their lives.
The fact that GMOs flourish in the United States because of consumer
ignorance leaves the industry extremely vulnerable. If some campaign or
event were to push this issue above the national radar screen causing
sufficient consumer concern, US manufacturers would respond like their
European counterparts. The tipping point does not require that a
majority of shoppers reject GM foods. If even a small percentage
started switching brands based on GMO content, major companies would
respond. After all, the products don’t gain anything from using them.
Their foods aren’t fresher, tastier, or healthier.
Any sympathetic media
could begin this domino effect. Similarly, a mandate from a prominent
religious leader, a popular film, a food scare, or some new research
finding, could force a stampede away from GM ingredients.
Already, 29 percent of Americans are strongly opposed to GM foods and believe they are unsafe.
But even among the 28 million Americans who regularly buy organic (and therefore non-GMO) food,
many do not conscientiously avoid GM ingredients in their
purchases; the products are not labeled. There is a campaign underway,
however, that will both educate health-conscious shoppers about GM food
dangers and provide clear non-GMO choices in the natural food stores
where they shop. Moreover, the natural products manufacturers, who have
been bitterly complaining about GMOs for a decade, are now united in an
unprecedented initiative to remove all remaining GM ingredients from
food products throughout their sector. On top of this, major websites
and media channels have committed support by providing regular coverage
of the health risks of GM foods. It is expected that millions of health
conscious shoppers will soon make brand choices based on non-GMO
content, which will force the rest of the food industry into a
European-style rejection of GM ingredients.
tipping point against one GM product has already started in the US.
There is a massive industry-wide rejection of dairy products made from
cows injected with Monsanto’s genetically engineered bovine growth
hormone. Over the last year, major dairies, supermarkets, even
Starbucks restaurants, have committed to stop using the controversial
drug. Articles in the
New York Times,
Boston Globe and
Reuters describe this as “an explosion in the industry,” “a tipping point,” and a “trend” that does
show “any signs of abating.” The transformation was triggered by
organizations educating consumers about the health risks of the
drug—and many of the same organizations are now focused on GM food
even if the tipping point is not reached by the consumer education,
legislation put forward by the next US president may have the same
effect. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and other
democratic presidential candidates have all committed to implement what
90% of Americans have wanted for more than a decade—mandatory labeling
of genetically engineered foods. When asked why they want GM foods
labeled, most Americans say it is because they want to avoid GM them.
Thus, once a date for mandatory labeling is set, major food companies
will almost certainly eliminate GM ingredients from their products
before then, to avoid the label.
INDUSTRY FORCED THEIR DANGEROUS AGENDA
of Americans want GM foods labeled, why hasn’t previous administrations
given consumers what they want? It is due to the powerful transnational
GM seed companies. There are only six, but their influence is
enormous. Henry Miller, in charge of biotech issues at the US Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) for many years, admitted, “in this area, the
US government agencies have done exactly what big agribusiness has
asked them to do and told them to do.” Monsanto, which has patents on
90% of the plants currently commercialized, wields the most influence.
According to the
New York Times, “What Monsanto wished for from Washington, Monsanto—and, by extension, the biotechnology industry—got.”
In fact, after the
White House told the FDA to promote the biotechnology industry, the
agency created a new position for Monsanto’s former attorney Michael
Taylor, who then oversaw the policy for GMOs. Released in May 1992 and
still in force, FDA policy states, “The agency is not aware of any
information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from
other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.” On the basis of this
sentence, the FDA claimed that no safety studies are necessary; biotech
companies thus determine on their own if their products are harmless.
This set the stage for the rapid deployment of the new technology. The
seed industry was consolidated, millions of acres were planted,
hundreds of millions were fed, consumers and nations objected, laws
were passed, crops were contaminated, billions of dollars were lost—and
it turns out that sentence was a lie. The FDA was fully aware that GM
crops were meaningfully different. That, in fact, was the overwhelming
consensus among “the technical experts in the agency.” They had
repeatedly warned their superiors that GM foods might create
unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects including allergies, toxins,
new diseases and nutritional problems. They urged the political
appointees to require long-term safety studies, including human
studies. The scientists’ concerns were kept secret in 1992, but seven
years later, internal records were made public due to a lawsuit and the
deception came to light. But it was too late. GM crops were widespread
(and Michael Taylor had been duly rewarded after leaving the FDA by
becoming a Monsanto vice president.)
There has been almost
no long-term animal feeding studies, no human clinical trials, and no
monitoring of the population to see if GM crops have had the adverse
effects described by the FDA scientists. But even among the few serious
safety studies that have been conducted, and the reports from farmers
around the world, evidence has emerged showing that the government
scientists’ concerns were justified. GM products have been linked with
thousands of toxic and allergic reactions, thousands of sick, sterile,
and dead livestock, and damage to virtually every organ and system
studied in lab animals.
While this evidence of
harm has major implications for the health of the nation, it also
carries an economic impact of those companies that have invested and
used GM foods and crops. Physicians who have studied the subject are
convinced that the dangers are real and are prescribing non-GMO diets
their patients. John H. Boyles, MD, an ear,
nose, and throat, and allergy specialist, for example, says, “I used to
test for soy allergies all the time, but now that soy is genetically
engineered, it is so dangerous that I tell people never to eat
it—unless it says organic,” (which would mean non-GMO).
There is a lot of
unknowns surrounding GM sugar beets. They might become the first
Roundup Ready crop to offer consistently higher yields—or not. They
might be the first to reduce herbicide use—or not. They might save
farmers money and increase farmer profits, or they might not. But
irrespective of their agronomic performance, they will thrust the sugar
industry, and all manufacturers who use sugar, into the gathering storm
of resistance to GM foods as well as all its unknowns for human health
and the environment. It seems clear that the time is not right to
introduce GM beets.
Click here for
GMO Sugar Will Not be Excused
Click here for
High Adoption Rates of GMOs by Farmers
Jeffrey M. Smith is the author of the new publication
Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, which presents 65 risks in easy-to-read two-page spreads. His first book,
Seeds of Deception,
is the top rated and #1 selling book on GM foods in the world. He is
the Executive Director of the Institute for Responsible Technology.
www.responsibletechnology.org, which is spearheading the Campaign for Healthier Eating in America. Go to
to learn more about how to avoid GM foods.
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