Genetically Modified Sugar Beets: A Bad Bet (at The Worse Time)

Genetically Modified Sugar Beets: A Bad Bet (at Th...

Genetically Modified Sugar Beets: A Bad Bet (at The Worse Time)

Jeffrey M. Smith

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 health,[1] is 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.


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."[2] Their "smorgasbord of marketing claims," writes the Asia Times, just adds to "the credibility problems that are piling up against genetic engineering."[3] 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."[4] The Associated Press says it "remains a money-losing, niche industry."[5]

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."[6]

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. The Canadian National Farmers Union (NFU) observed, "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."[7]


Among 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 any 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%.[8] 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." [9] 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,[10] Canada 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."[11]

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.

GM 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, [12] 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 papaya farmers[13] and 28% of papaya acreage.[14] According to a 2006 article in The Honolulu Advertiser, "Hawaii papaya production sank to a more than 25-year low last year despite record demand among US consumers for the tropical fruit." [15] Non-GM 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.[16] He says growers have only been kept afloat by the huge jump in subsidies.[17]

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.

Similarly, 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.


The 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." [18] Net farm incomes in Canada plummeted since the introduction of GM canola, with the last five years being the worst in Canada’s history.

The 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." [19]

Most of the Bt corn in the US is designed to kill the European corn borer. According to the US National Academy of Sciences, [20] before 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.

A 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."[21]


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%.[22] Brazilian soybean yields are also down since Roundup Ready varieties were introduced.[23] In Canada, a study showed a 7.5% lower yield with Roundup Ready canola.[24]

The 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.[25] That increase is accelerating, with approximately 120 million more pounds used in years 10 and 11.[26] 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.


The 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 settlements.[27] In China, Bt cotton appeared to offer higher net returns, better yields, and pesticide reduction when first introduced in 1997.[28] 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 farmers.[29] In 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.)[30]

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.[31] 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.[32] 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."[33] The Andhra Pradesh Agriculture Minister demanded that Monsanto pay recompense for farmers losses,[34] several 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.[35]

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.[36] Thousands of Bt cotton farmers also committed suicide—the rate in one region was one suicide every eight hours.


In 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 miles.[37]

But 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.[38] Most of the non-GM soy, corn, and canola seeds tested in the US also contained GMOs.[39]

Contamination 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.

Even 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.[40] In 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 papayas again."[41] Thefts 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 engineered.

Contamination 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.[42]

If the 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."

There 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.


The 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.

When 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.[43] More 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.

When 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 GM varieties.

More 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.


In Iowa 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 in 1994.[44] "The depth of market rejection," according to the Washington D.C. based Center for Food Safety, "is arguably unparalleled by any other consumer product."[45]

Dan 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 demand."[46]


At a 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.

Within 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."[47] By 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.

The 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.[48] 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.[49] But even among the 28 million Americans who regularly buy organic (and therefore non-GMO) food,[50] many do not conscientiously avoid GM ingredients in their non-organic 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.

A 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 not 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 crops.

But 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.


If 90% 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."[51]

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.[52]

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 to 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 SIDEBAR 1: GMO Sugar Will Not be Excused

Click here for SIDEBAR 2: High Adoption Rates of GMOs by Farmers are Misleading

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., 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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