Stray Sugar Beet Pollen Threatens Organic Food Industry

Angela Eklund

Does “majority rules, minority rights” apply to the sugar-beet industry? The USDA has been left to decide.

More than half the country’s sugar comes from sugar-beets, and nearly all commercial sugar-beet farms use seeds that are genetically engineered to resist herbicides. These plants contain a gene in their DNA that makes them resistant to the same chemicals that kill their competitors in the garden: weeds.

However, smaller, organic farms that provide a market for non-engineered crops are threatened by the massive use of genetically modified, or GM, crops. Wind can carry pollen from GM plants, like sugar beets, and contaminate organic crops nearby.

Frank Morton, owner of Wild Garden Seed, produces 150 varieties of organic seeds for farms across the country. Morton said in a recent interview that “if biotech traits show up in my seeds, then my seeds are worthless.” He also pointed out that if traits from his plants show up in conventional or biotech seeds, their value isn’t destroyed. “It’s an asymmetrical relationship we have here,” he continued.

Some organic farmers have planned to protect their interests. Zelig Golden, a lawyer with the Center for Food Safety, said they plan to convince the court to ban the sale of GM sugar-beet seeds until the USDA can properly protect consumers and farmers alike.

Many environmentalists argue that GM crops can be an ease on the environment, because less pesticides and herbicides are necessary, which can be detrimental to the surrounding ecosystems. Even more say that there is no use for a market for organic sugar-beets, because genetically engineered sugar-beets have no known harmful side-affects for consumers.

But the fact remains that there is a market for organic foods: the consumer may no longer desire a tainted product. Organic foods sell because they are guaranteed to grow without the use of genetic modification or chemicals. Without that guarantee, the market will disappear. Whether or not the market should exist in the first place is not the question at hand. The challenge for the USDA is to protect the existing market in order to protect the livelihood of organic farmers.

According to the Organic Farming Research Foundation, organic farming provides 2% of the nations crops and remains the fastest growing sector of agriculture. In 2007 there were approximately 13,000 certified organic producers in the U.S., and that number is rising. This $12.8 billion industry is under constant threat of crop contamination, as well as the 13,000 farmers and small companies that depend upon it.

Harmful long-term effects of GM crops on consumers and on the environment are still unknown; we haven’t been using them long enough to have witnessed those kind of impacts. Protecting organic farms is a priority. However, shutting down commercial production of sugar-beets, and possibly all GM crops nationwide is not an option either; think about the other 98% of crops that are either genetically engineered or exposed to chemicals. Therefore, a compromise is in order. Protecting both industries should be the USDA’s main interest, not eliminating one.