Another not so sweet victory for the Anti-GMO movement

Photo: Jonathan Wilkins

This requires a deeper dive, but somebody needs to stick a pin it. Last week it was reported that demand for cane sugar is up, and outstripping supply. This comes as major food manufacturers are starting to reformulate their products in reaction to pending GMO labeling laws, in Vermont and potentially from the US Congress.

Vermont’s new requirements for food companies to label GMO ingredients have “turbo boosted” the trend toward cane, said one buyer.

I’m sure many critics of biotech crops will see this as a step in the right direction. However, it will be interesting to see how they justify this shift. As it’s gone out of fashion to worry publicly about potential and imagined health risk of biotech in respectable circles, the current tactic is to opine about the environmental impacts of biotech crops. The problem here is that it’s nearly impossible to argue that switching from the biotech sugar beets that currently make up the bulk of the US sugar supply to sugarcane is in any way a net benefit to the environment. Sugarcane is an environmentally intensive crop. It requires large amounts of water and often threatens local aquifers. It is a tropical crop which requires the deforestation of vital, biodiverse habitat to allow for new production.

The Guardian in 2014:

Few commodities have a darker history than sugarcane. A labour-intensive monocrop that once relied on slavery, it has more recently encompassed child labour, land-grabs and [PDF] the displacement of communities. A notoriously “thirsty” crop, it depletes aquifers and pollutes seas with chemical fertiliser and pesticide run-off. The common practice of burning fields accounts for 20% of the crop’s CO2 emissions.

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Sugarcane cultivation grew globally from 19m hectares in 2000 to nearly 24m by 2010 (pdf): the same as palm oil and cocoa combined. With the world’s increasingly sweet tooth and demand for sugar-derived ethanol, this expansion is set to continue.

Just as when Chipotle switched from biotech ingredients that used less insecticides and better herbicides to non-GMO ingredients that used more insecticides and less than better herbicides, the faux environmentalism of the Anti-GMO movement comes into greater and greater focus as they rack up  another real world victory. Or should I say, “victory”.


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    • What do they use to control insects in sugar fields. I’d imagine the bugs down there have no less of sweet tooth than the ants at any picnic.

  1. If companies want to purchase cane over beet sugar who cares, except for those who only farm beet sugar. Are they switching over due to customer demand?

    • Some of us care about the environmental impact. And also we might dislike importing sugar from countries whose cane field workers are suffering from horrible kidney diseases.

      But yah, that might not matter to you.

    • As a sugsrbeet farmer in the U.S. We don’t solely raise sugarbeets alone. We raise corn, soybeans, spring wheat, and barley. Sugarcane is not an option here in MN/ND. Sugarcane is a tropical crop & we are far from it here. As for the environmental aspect of GMO sugarbeets we have seen great results with them. We’ve improved our weed control (making harvest more effecient), are using safer less toxic herbicides (vs the older conventional ones), increased yields, and are able to operate more sustsainably What I mean by sustainable is the ability to reduce tillage trips (reduced fuel usage & soil degredation), make fewer herbicide applucations (less fuel used and less herbicide used), & able to use cover crops to keep the soil from blowing while the crop is young.
      As for switching? We are unable to make the switch to non-GMO beets sugarbeets are a biennial crop (takes 2 yrs to produce seed) for a number of yrs. The non-GMO beet seed available right now is yrs behind in genetic terms from what we are using currently. That would mean fewer tons produced (limiting supply) and higher disease incidence further reducing yields.
      The thing people need to understand is that ag cannot change overnight just because it’s the nature of the beast. It takes time. Farming has never been and can never be instantaneous. A little foresight goes a long way in making changes.

        • Yes, have been raising sugarbeets in rotation since 1974. GMO beets weren’t available until the 2007 crop.

          • Thanks. Are you seeing less demand for the sugar beets? From what Ive read there is infighting in the sugar industry with the beet sugar processors not wanting to identify on the packaging if the source is sugar beets instead of cane.

          • More so now that vermont has their law pending. Otherwise it would ebb and flow cyclical, but not to the degree we may be looking at now. Over the years we’ve had sibling rivalries. Over the past few years or relationship has improved greatly I believe. As for not identifying beet or cane, I’ve been an open book with everyone I’ve talked with when they ask.

          • Cool, was a great article I read on the cooking properties of the two. Many confectioners prefer cane. I guess just it will just be cyclical, I didnt know the Vermont law was labeling from source like the UK one. That is in contrast to the Australian one which doesnt label from source.

          • No, Vermont is labeling GMO/Non-GMO. As it stands now sisters are GMO and cane is not. I honestly didn’t know that we’ve fought labeling source (cane vs beer) here in the States. Can’t has just always started “made from cane sugar” on their packaging.
            I’ve also heard confectioners claim difference in cane & beet sugar. I just figured it had to do with the fact that came sugar had more molasses in its end produce then beet sugar which would affect its properties some.

      • Vance-Do you grow in western Nebraska? I would sure hate to see farmers in the Nebraska panhandle lose beets as a rotation option.

  2. Thank you for a nice summation of the anit-GMO movements pyrrhic victories. Speaking for the environment – with friends like these…

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