It's true that we really do not have a clear picture of what genetically modified food crops can do to our bodies over time. But we do know that if crops are genetically modified to withstand increased pesticide use, we'll have more toxics in our drinking water sources.
Take the scary case of the sugar beet, which more than half of U.S. sugar supplies are made from.
Since the turn of the 20th century, warmer states have been growing sugar beet as a profitable crop rotator. "Beet Fever" is as high as ever with Monsanto's Roundup Ready beet seed — which is genetically engineered to resist glyphosphate herbicides, use of which has skyrocketed.
Growers can apply 96 ounces of the herbicide per acre without harming the beets, where non-genetically modified vegetables would not tolerate such levels.
In 2008, Roundup Ready beets accounted for 58 percent of the total U.S. crop. However, nearly 90 percent of this year's Western Sugar Collaborative crop, which represents 1,400 growers in four U.S. states, has been planted with the modified seed, according to the collaborative.
Growers are thrilled because the highest yields per acre are predicted for 2009, and the success of the crop is being attributed to the modified seed. With sugar prices having plummeted 15 percent in mid-2008 and constant threat from cheaper sugar imports, growers saw 2008 record yields in Colorado, Montana and other states as welcome news.
However, high yield of a GMO crop does not bode well for food safety advocates that question use of the product pervading countless, unlabeled foods. Concerns include:
Genetic contamination to organic sugar beet and sugar markets since the crop is wind-pollinated.
Vast increases in water quality impacts and herbicide residues in sugar product due to increased herbicide application.
Threat to crop sustainability by reducing biodiversity to one seed manufactured by one company.
Emergence of superweeds that resist increasingly toxic herbicides due to wholesale adoption of Roundup Ready GMO.
In 2008, Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club and others to overturn the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) 2005 decision to deregulate Roundup Ready sugar beet seed and are asking that production, sale and use be banned. The groups argue that USDA has not conducted extensive research on the seed's safety and its impact on public health and the environment and are calling for National Environmental Policy Act review.
Several companies have signed a Non-GM Sugar Beet Registry, online at www.seedsofdeception.com/includes/services/nongm_sugar_beet_registry_display.cfm.
This week's Green Quick Fixes are realizing how pervasive GMO sugar is becoming, checking labels and supporting the manufacturers that signed the registry. It's a daunting task considering that sugar is a key ingredient in millions of food products.
For more information on GMO activities, go to www.centerforfoodsafety.org.
Other uses for sugar beet
Sugar beet molasses or beet juice, a byproduct of the sugar-making process, is being tested in Ohio, Washington D.C., and elsewhere as a green alternative for conventional, freshwater-polluting road deicer. Combinations of beet juice and rock salt can make winter roads safe to -30 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a report by Mother Nature Network published earlier this year.
This is good news because high concentrations of rock salt hamper many cold regions' abilities to comply with federal clean water standards.
Another use for sugar beet may be in ethanol production, and it's possible that it may prove to be higher yield than corn. In a 2006 study, the USDA determined that processing sugar beet and refined sugar for ethanol production would be feasible, though costly because factories would have to be converted. The American Crystal Sugar Company is also studying the trend, and nations like Ireland and Brazil are also considering.
Andrea Fox, a Beverly resident, has been writing about environmental sustainability and eco-topics for nine years. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a watershed protection advocate in Salem Sound Watershed.