Growers welcome, critics leery of genetically modified sugar beets

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Capital News Service
LANSING – Sugar beet farmers are upbeat about a federal decision to permit the continued use of the Roundup Ready sugar beets, a genetically engineered crop.
“There’s overwhelming support for this technology and the farmers see no problem with it at all,” said Bob Boehm, manager of the Michigan Farm Bureau’s Commodity and Marketing Department.
But farmers want more access to the technology, he said, and are still concerned about complying with federal requirements.
Boehm said he’s confident that sugar beet growers will have sufficient support from field specialists and Extension services to assist with meeting regulations.
Early last month, the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services announced that farmers could continue growing sugar beets that have been genetically engineered, (GE) to resist the herbicide known as Roundup, but only under certain conditions.
The agency is charged with regulating genetically engineered organisms and will enforce the conditions until it completes a full environmental impact assessment, according to the agency.
Though Michigan doesn’t have a statewide regulatory process that protects farmers from market failures due to such technology, Boehm said that he isn’t worried because the Farm Bureau relies on “the best science available and strong regulatory protocols.”
U.S. Sen. Debbi Stabenow, D-Lansing., Senate Agriculture Committee chair, praised the decision to allow planting this spring.
“Sugar beets are a major economic driver of Michigan’s agriculture industry,” she said.  “Michigan is on the leading edge of national beet sugar production, and this decision comes at a crucial moment when farmers need certainty to efficiently plan their crops.”
In 2009, Michigan harvested more than 3.5 million tons of sugar from about half a million acres of harvested sugar beets, according to Michigan Sugar Co., a cooperative owned by more than 1,000 growers based in Bay City.     The crop is mostly grown around Sebewaing and Saginaw.
GE crops are associated with lower production costs and higher yields, but critics say that they could cause potential environmental and health risks.
“There’s a lot of scientific analysis showing the safety of genetically modified crops,” said Rebecca Grumet, a professor of genetics, plant breeding and biotechnology at Michigan State University.  “These crops are more tested than anything we’ve ever eaten.”
Grumet is co-author of an upcoming book examining concerns about the impacts of GM technology on the environment and human health.
“Environmental Safety of Genetically Engineered Crops,” Grumet’s new book, says that there is no inherent danger or difference in the nutritional value of GE food products.  That conclusion is based on 50 independent scientific studies by different groups in different places in the world, according to the book.
But even if there’s a consensus on safety, the book says there’s no guarantee of safety as more foods with new genetic traits are developed.
George Kimbrell, a senior attorney and policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety in Washington, said some Food and Drug Administration, (FDA) safety processes are too antiquated to detect problems with emerging biotechnology products.
Moreover, it’s hard for independent organizations to perform their own testing on such products because of patent restrictions, Kimbrell said.
“You have to get the permission of companies and they have to approve your research — it’s a case where patent controls research.”
Kimbrell also said there’s a lack of transparency in GE safety regulatory procedures.
“It’s very important for the public to understand how the government is regulating new bioengineered products,” he said.
The center has been lobbying for compulsory independent pre-market testing by the government to certify the safety of products before they can be sold for human consumption.
The FDA, the agency responsible for food safety, expects companies to perform safety and nutritional testing on their own without any requirement to submit their reports for evaluation, Kimbrell said.
“But even when companies volunteer such reports, the safety verification process is kept confidential,” he said.
The center also wants regulations mandating labeling of GE products.
“We believe that consumers need to know what they are feeding their families,” Kimbrell said.  “If these companies are proud of what they produce, they should make them public.”
FDA regulations require labeling of production processes only when food products are nutritionally different or if their uses are different from similar products.
Siobhan DeLancey, a press specialist with FDA’s Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, said that the agency is more focused on the quality of the end products, not the processes used.
“We require labeling where there could be some allergenic or toxic reactions from the use of products,” she said.
The center, which also represents companies in legal suits about genetically engineered hazards, hasn’t documented any health complaints about such products.  But Kimbrell said that in the case of such complaints, labels could provide a lead to the cause of the problem.
MSU’s Grumet, who works closely with farmers, said sugar beet growers want the Roundup Ready crops because of “terrible” weed problems in the past.
“With Roundup Ready seeds, they are able to produce more at less cost,” she said.
Grumet also said that farmers are knowledgeable, savvy and skillful and often weigh their options before planting such seeds on large scale.
“The concept that companies are forcing stuff on farmers isn’t true at all,” she said.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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