Sugarbeet growers in limbo

MPR photo

Sugar beet growers in Minnesota and North Dakota remain in limbo as the U.S. Department of Agriculture wrestles with the issue of genetically modified seeds.

Farmers are in a pinch because they usually order seeds in November for next spring. It appears the USDA won't clarify the rules for using the seeds until early next year. So farmers have to decide if they want to order Roundup Ready seeds and assume they will be able to use them, or revert to traditional seeds.

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When Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready sugar beets a few years ago, farmers quickly adopted the technology. Many were having trouble with herbicide resistant weeds (shown in the photo above) and Roundup Ready seeds allowed them to use a new, effective herbicide.

Then a lawsuit was filed challenging the USDA approval of Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds. The concern is that the genetically modified plants would cross pollinate with plants that aren't genetically modified. A judge ruled USDA needed to conduct a full environmental assessment of the new seeds. That will take a couple of years, so now USDA is trying to come up with a way to allow farmers to use the seeds while it completes the environmental assessment.

Since Roundup Ready seeds captured more than 90 percent of the market in our region, other seed companies have reduced production. It's tough to get information on seed supply, but one person involved in the industry says there's likely to be enough traditional seed if farmers can't plant the Roundup seeds.

The challenge might be finding enough high quality traditional seed. There could also be shortages of herbicides because the sugar beet industry has used some very specific herbicides with non-genetically modified plants. The current supply of those herbicides is unclear.

Farmers can't just make a decision to not grow sugar beets next year. In our region they are all members of cooperatives and they are contractually obligated to plant a certain number of acres of beets. So one way or another, they will need to plant sugar beets next year or pay a hefty penalty to the cooperative. The question is whether this ongoing legal dispute will sour farmers on using genetically modified seeds.

Those I've spoken with say it will be difficult to put that genie back in the bottle.

Minnesota and North Dakota grow more than half of all the sugar beets grown in the country.

Economists estimate the annual economic impact of the sugar beet industry in the region exceeds $3 billion.