Genetically engineered, also known as GE or GMO, sugar beets have been genetically manipulated to withstand heavy sprayings of the chemical herbicide Roundup, a weed-killing formula that's been implicated in serious health and environmental problems, including micronutrient deficiencies, toxin buildup in food, infertility, and human cell death. "If you thought your sugary treat was bad before, it’s just become a nightmare," Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the consumer protection group Food & Water Watch, said in a statement. "Soon, many candy bars in America could be produced with sugar grown with Monsanto’s dangerous Roundup Ready herbicide. While Americans enjoy their dessert, Monsanto will reap ever-larger profits and enjoy ever-greater power over what you and I eat."
THE DETAILS: Monsanto, the multinational corporation that creates genetically engineered seeds designed to withstand sprayings of the company's Roundup product, has been facing growing opposition from consumers seeking food free of genetically engineered material and toxic pesticides, but it seems to be getting its way with the Obama administration.
Biotech's lasted victory involves GMO sugar beets, capping a multi-year saga full of legal battles. In 2005, USDA approved Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds, developed by Monsanto, which also controls the pesticide farmers need to grow the GE seeds, without restriction on where the crop can be grown. In early 2008, a coalition of food safety, environmental protection, and organic seed groups filed a lawsuit challenging the approval. In September 2009, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California sided with the Center for Food Safety coalition, finding that USDA should have prepared an environmental impact statement (EIS) before allowing the widespread planting of GMO sugar beets. Despite that ruling to develop an EIS, USDA decided last week to allow selected plantings of GE sugar beets through a permitting process. The required EIS is not expected to be completed until 2012. Patty Lovera, assistant director of the consumer protection group Food & Water Watch, criticizes the recent approval of genetically engineered sugar beets and alfalfa. "It's a convenient argument for USDA to say this is suddenly a decision regarding a sugar shortage. But this is a pro-Monsanto decision, and to make it about anyone else is not accurate," she says. "This is a political decision. It's not based on an environmental impact statement or science, and we need to let politicians know they're doing the wrong thing."
WHAT IT MEANS: The sugar beet decision marks the second time USDA gave genetically engineered crops the green light within the last two weeks, despite the fact that recent surveys show most Americans don't want genetically engineered ingredients in the food chain. That same 2010 survey found that 93 percent of the U.S. population believes genetically engineered foods should be labeled, but Congress has not passed such requirements.
GE sugar beets are used to make some granulated table sugar that's also used in some sugar-containing products. This go-ahead to again plant the GE sugar beets will add even more genetically engineered ingredients to the food chain. Cane sugar is not genetically engineered, and is not at risk of being contaminated by genetic contamination from GE sugar beets because it's not a close relative of the sugar beet. However, nutrient-dense garden favorites like Swiss chard and red beets are relatives of the sugar beet and could be contaminated, according to Michael Hansen, PhD, chief scientist of Consumers Union.
Here's how to voice your opinion on genetically engineered ingredients.
• Help shift the market. Genetically engineered seeds and chemical pesticides are banned in organic farming, so buying organic is a great way to avoid GE ingredients. But widespread introduction of GE crops threatens organic farmers because of genetic pollution through cross-pollination. Which in threatens to limit options for consumers who want to buy organic. "If we don't succeed with GE sugar beets in the courts, we'll need market pressure," explains Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, an organization that has been battling the introduction of genetically engineered crops to the market for years. In 2001, Hershey's and M&M Mars told consumers they wouldn't use genetically engineered sugar in its products. However, there's no guarantee of that now. Ask them to
make that promise again if you want to keep GE ingredients out of a major market that relies on sugar. Lovera says consumers could also call the makers of their favorite dairy and sugar-containing products, and urge the companies to only use non-GE ingredients.
• Tap into the network. The Center for Food Safety is leading the charge in demanding that genetically engineered foods be labeled and tested for safety.
• Call the White House. Food & Water Watch is asking consumers to contact the White House and demand that the administration protect organic farmers and consumers. Food Democracy Now! is running a similar campaign.