Moorhead, Minn. – Sugar beet seed that has built-in resistance to the popular Roundup herbicide is expected to be in widespread use next year, as governments and sugar processors approve the biotech beets.
In the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota, American Crystal Sugar Co. has decided to make the jump.
“It’s a pretty major step,” Crystal President David Berg said. “Here at American Crystal, we believe biotechnology is the current wave that will help feed the world.”
The Worland, Wyo.-based Wyoming Sugar Co. planted about one-sixth of its 12,000 acres to Roundup Ready beets this year. Wahpeton, N.D.-based Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative has announced tentative plans to move to biotech seed.
“It’s still not 100%,” said Tom Knudsen, a co-op vice president for agriculture. “(But) the reasons for making the decision are still valid. I don’t see anything that looks like it could be a cloud on the horizon.”
Biotech seed harvest is beginning in Oregon, Knudsen said. Three companies are expected to handle it in 2008, and the Crystal Seed brand also will be available for American Crystal growers. Berg said he expects farmers in the Red River Valley to have enough biotech seed to plant up to half of their acreage.
Farmers who want to use the biotech seed must factor a technology fee of about $60 per acre into their plans.
“What we’re asking our shareholders to do is go in with a good healthy look at their production costs,” Berg said. “We have a database of what (farmers) spend, and our numbers say if you’re in the middle to lower half in weed control costs, it probably would make sense to use conventional seed and weed control.”
Amenia farmer Bill Hejl, president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, said he expects to get more sugar per acre with biotech beets. “I also think I’ll probably spend less on herbicides, maybe less on fertilizer next year, and less on cultivation,” he said.
“It’s something new, and a lot of sugar beet growers, a lot of my neighbors are very excited, up and down the valley,” Hejl said.
Sugar beet yields are particularly susceptible to weed pressure, with some industry experts saying weeds can sap as much as 30% of a crop’s yield. Sugar beet fields are the only ones in the Red River Valley where people still are occasionally employed to work up and down the rows, hoeing weeds.
“Field labor will be thing of the past,” said Nick Sinner, executive director of the sugar beet group.
Biotech beets also could reduce the need for what is known as “micro rate” herbicide applications. The process involves smaller amounts of chemical applied multiple times, to cut down on injury to the beets. That requires more passes through the field, which burns more fuel and compacts the soil, which then needs cultivation.
“Typically, a farmer might spray three or four times a year, but it can be up to five,” Sinner said. “With Roundup Ready (beets), we have more of an opportunity to kill weeds without injury to the beets.”
All countries that are major sugar beet markets, including the United States, have approved the Roundup Ready beet variety. The European Union’s formal approval is pending, but the European Food Safety Authority said late last year that “no risks to human and animal health were identified in studies.”
Molly Cline, senior director of global industry affairs with St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. (MON), which developed Roundup Ready beets, said recently that processor acceptance was the last step to making biotech beets as widespread as genetically modified soybeans, corn and cotton.
“The sugar from genetically modified beets is chemically the same as that grown from traditional beets, leaving no DNA trace from the biotechnology process,” Cline said. “As such, it requires no special labeling in North America and in Japan.”