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Farmers embrace genetically modified beets

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Weedy field
Using traditional herbicide methods, farmers need perfect timing to control weeds. Rain delayed spraying on this field, allowing weeds to get out of hand.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

American Crystal Sugar company director of agriculture Dan Bernhardson guides his SUV down a narrow gravel road, into a muddy sugar beet field east of Moorhead. 

Kirk Watt is starting to prepare this field for harvest. He didn't plant the genetically modified Roundup Ready beets this year, but wishes he had. 

"We had non-Roundup here and the guy over there has Roundup and I tell you, his look better," says Watt ruefully. "It's not so much now, but boy, in June it was just night and day difference."

This field has large areas where a thick crop of pigweed dwarfs the sugar beets. The weeds are more than a nuisance, they lower crop yield and cost the farmer thousands of dollars. 

"I'm sure those spots that are thick with pigweed you'll probably have two, three, four ton less per acre," says Watt.

Discussing the crop
About half of the sugar beets in the Red River Valley are genetically modified this year. Next year, it's likely 90 percent of the crop will be the herbicide-resistant variety.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

It's hard to control weeds in sugar beets. Traditionally, the chemicals that kill weeds would also kill the beets. 

So farmers applied carefully timed, very low doses of herbicide several times a year to control the weeds without killing the beets. They used migrant farm labor to remove the weeds that escaped the herbicide.

This year, rain kept Kirk Watt out of the field when the weeds were small. By the time he could spray, the weeds were too big to be killed by the low dose of herbicide, and it was too costly to hire laborers to hoe the weeds. So the weeds rise about the beets in thick clumps. 

But in his neighbors field of Roundup Ready beets, there's not a weed to be seen. That's because the beets are genetically modified to be immune to the broad spectrum weed killer Roundup. So farmers can easily kill weeds any time without worrying about damaging the beet plants. 

American Crystal Sugar Director of Agriculture Dan Bernhardson, says just over half of the sugar beets planted this year were the Roundup Ready variety created by Monsanto. He says farmers who planted the modified sugar beets have a clear advantage in weed control.

"The other advantage we see is less cultivation of the field, less passes across the field. Also, the number of times you have to spray. Most conventional varieties have four applications of spray where roundup varieties we expect two applications. So, less trips across the field, less diesel fuel being burned," says Bernhardson.

Clean field
Farmers who planted genetically modified sugar beets this year have fewer weeds, which means bigger yields.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

So the farmer saves money on labor and fuel.  But that doesn't mean the GMO beets are cheaper to grow. 

Monsanto charges a technology fee for the seeds, about $60 per acre, which offsets much of the savings.  Tests this year show the GMO beets overall don't produce higher yields than traditional varieties. That's expected to change as the GMO seed is improved over the next couple of years.    Kirk Watt has weighed all the costs and variables and says he's almost certain to plant all GMO beets next year.    "One of the variables is increased yield. They say it might be a two-ton increased yield. If that's that case it will definitely make it more profitable," says Watt. "Hopefully the tech fee doesn't keep increasing every year. Because once we have Roundup, that's all we have. We might be limited to that seed. That part concerns me a little bit."

Next year American Crystal expects about 90 percent of sugar beets to be the Roundup Ready variety.

That means seed companies will quickly stop producing traditional seed varieties.  So within two or three years, Roundup Ready will be the only choice. 

Red River Valley Sugar Beet Growers Association Executive Director Nick Sinner, says people are concerned about that because farmers don't want Monsanto, the creator of the Roundup brand, holding all the cards when it comes to buying seed.   "We want to have a good working relationship with Monsanto because they hold the rights to that technology," says Sinner.  "We also think competition is a great thing, so if there are other technologies that come along that will work for weed control and keeps everybody honest in the long run, that can be a good thing." 

Farmers are also concerned about a pending lawsuit challenging the government's decision to allow the use of GMO sugar beets. 

sugar beet harvest
Preliminary harvest is underway to allow sugar beet processing factories to start operations. Full scale harvest starts next month.
MPR Photo/Bob Reha

It's unclear how that case could affect next year's planting, since the seed for next year has already been produced. 

But despite lingering questions, it appears the benefits of the herbicide-resistant sugar beet plants have farmers ready to embrace the change.