No farmer I know likes to till his soil or apply herbicides. Tillage destroys soil structure, depletes soil organic matter, disrupts the lives of healthy soil bacteria and releases trapped greenhouse gases.
And herbicides - while necessary to prevent weeds from stealing sunlight, water and nutrients, and ultimately stifling the crop - are expensive and can harm the fields if used excessively.
However, in the last few years I've reduced my field tillage by 30% and my herbicide applications were cut in half because I had access to a new technology: GMO sugar beets. My soil and crops are better because of it.
Now a judicial ruling may force me to increase my herbicide applications by 50% and resume those aggressive tillage practices in my sugar beets--even though biotechnology offers much better options.
I grow sugar beets on a family farm near Boise, Idaho. A couple of years ago, we started to plant genetically modified sugar beets that offer better weed control. They’re good for farmers, good for consumers, and good for the environment.
Unfortunately, we’re on the verge of losing the right to grow them. Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White ruled that the government failed to look hard enough when they determined that GM sugar beets were not a plant pest. After regulatory testing, the USDA, in 2006, approved them to be planted without restriction in the U.S. This year, over 95% of sugar beets planted in the U.S. used this technology.
The plaintiffs are four special-interest groups whose opposition to biotechnology is ideological rather than scientific: the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club, and High Mowing Organic Seeds. They are fervently against GM crops and no amount of additional testing of GM sugar beets will change their intractable opposition.
Later this month Judge White will consider an actual ban of GMO sugar beets – a very drastic step in light of the circumstances. We'll all be worse off if that is his decision. For starters, I’ll have to go back to using more herbicides and extensive tillage on my farm.
In order to defeat weeds, we till, cultivate and spray our fields with a menu of old-fashioned herbicides. The tillage and spray does a pretty good job of controlling weeds, but it also sends young sugar beets into shock and stunts their growth. This reduces the yield and amount of sugar produced.
Biotechnology changes this grim equation. Through genetic improvement, we’re able to plant exceptional sugar beets that naturally resist glyphosate, an extremely safe and effective weed herbicide available at your local Wal-Mart. This improves their yield, which in turn helps me and many other family farmers make ends meet. Believe me, the last thing we need in this economic climate is for a judge to deny us the freedom to choose what we grow. The livelihoods of tens of thousands of Americans depend upon the growing, harvesting, and processing of sugar beets. This ruling threatens to hit us in our pocket books at a time when we can least afford it.
Farmers aren’t the only beneficiaries. GM sugar beets require fewer herbicides, which gives comfort to consumers. Moreover, this crop allows me to give my tractors a break. Fewer applications of chemical sprays and greatly reduced tillage means we run them a lot less, which reduces our greenhouse-gas emissions and helps the environment. According to one estimate, the widespread adoption of GM sugar beets saves 1.7 million gallons of fuel each year.
Significantly, Judge White’s ruling did not question the safety of GM sugar beets, whose sugar at the molecular level is in fact identical to sugar produced by sugar cane and non-GM sugar beets. The U.S. Department of Agriculture already has conducted an environmental assessment and determined that GM sugar beets pose no threat to anybody. The judge seems to think that USDA should conduct additional studies.
Nobody in the sugar beet industry has anything to fear from new studies. They are bound to affirm what we already know about the safety of this product. The problem is that this legal ruling could remove an important crop from our fields for an unknown length of time. It could take years for this problem to resolve itself.
That’s the lesson of GM alfalfa--another good biotech product that I used to grow, but had to stop using once it became tied up in the red tape of litigation.
I hope everybody involved can agree that this issue needs to be resolved as quickly as possible, so that farmers, consumers, and the environment can take advantage of biotech sugar beets.
Paul Rasgorshek runs a family farm near Nampa, Idaho. They grow sugar beets, alfalfa seed, sweet corn seed, peppermint, spearmint, garden beans and peas for seed, carrot seed, onion seed, silage corn, and hay on 3,900 acres of irrigated ground. Mr. Rasgorshek is a guest author for Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org