Reflecting on the past, while looking ahead to a promising future.
Humans have modified seeds and plants for thousands of years, each species responding and adapting to climatic and environmental changes. The changes were, for the most part, random and uncontrolled, resulting in adaptation of the species, sometimes with unintended results. Introduced in the late 90’s, current biotech seeds have been hand selected for traits, allowing plant and crop production to be controlled. With control, only the targeted, specific traits are produced for qualities benefitting producers and consumers.
Many foods available in North America are the result of advanced breeding techniques and the application of biotechnology to crop research: corn, soybeans, papaya, alfalfa, canola, papaya, apples, summer squash, and of course, sugarbeets. For sugarbeet growers in North America the introduction of Roundup Ready sugarbeet seed in 2008 has been an industry-changing event. The Snake River Sugar Cooperative (SRSC) estimates that herbicide cost has dropped over 80% and herbicide application costs have been reduced by half since Roundup Ready sugarbeets were adopted in Idaho and Oregon. Even after 5-7 herbicide applications, growers in the Western US were forced to hand weed fields just to maintain weed control. And before Roundup Ready sugarbeets, over 40% of growers claimed that weeds were still a problem compared with under 15% now. In the western US, growers claimed they had the opportunity to spend time with family, for the first time in years, due to the less crop management intensive approach to weed control and weed management. Roundup Ready sugarbeet seed continues to provide great weed control compared with non-biotech sugarbeet seed and related crop management practices. Many sugarbeet growers say they would not plant non-biotech beets again due to the time commitment required and inconvenience related to crop management practices.
This is good news for many input suppliers, especially sugarbeet seed suppliers, as seed development and market introduction is long, typically 8-10 years. In addition to the seed development timeline, each sugar company across North America requires 2-3 years of varietal testing required by sugar companies and cooperatives prior to commercial introduction. This timeline is also accurate for the introduction of a new seed trait. Whether the trait is related to disease tolerance or performance, most North American sugarbeet growers are unaware of the product introduction timeline and related input costs. Interestingly enough, one approved variety is the result of a significant number of breeding cycles.
“Most commercial sugarbeet varieties that are currently in testing are the result of a selection process from thousands of parents, and related varieties, that never make it to a sugarbeet grower’s field,” said Jay Miller, Director of Product Management and Breeding, Betaseed. Inc. “Targeting and selecting traits that benefit sugarbeet growers and their fields not only takes 8-10 years per variety, it requires a significant investment in our research and breeding programs.”
“The typical cost to our company is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per variety when we decide to offer new seed varieties to the markets,” says John Enright, President of Betaseed, Inc. “We reinvest over 10% of sales back into research and breeding activities associated with bringing new products to our customers. With over 50 varieties currently available in North America alone, sugarbeet breeders have invested significant time and funding into sugarbeet seed. We’re banking on the fact that new varieties, whether brought about through traditional breeding activities, transgenic activities, or newer cutting-edge technologies, will continue to be available to all North American growers, supporting their operational needs to plant a sugarbeet crop that is disease tolerant, produces high quality sugar and tons, and offers strong performance.”
KWS Saat SE is leading development of the new trait, in conjunction with Monsanto, for North American sugarbeet growers and estimates that seed varieties will be available the first portion of the next decade pending regulatory approvals. This new trait will also require a minimum of 10 years and multiple resources aligned with the end goal in mind; productivity. Growers need improved weed management tools combined with strong hybrid performance. The new trait will combine the three modes of action of glyphosate, glufosinate, and dicamba into one system to provide growers effective options to manage weeds in the production fields.
“Betaseed is looking forward to offer this new trait addition to the current Roundup Ready herbicide tolerant trait in the future,” says Mark Schmidt, VP of Sales and Marketing for Betaseed, Inc. “Growers need improved weed management tools combined with strong hybrid performance. With KWS leading the development effort I have no doubt that growers will benefit from a new management tool and I look forward to the day we can offer this new trait to North American sugarbeet growers.”
Until the introduction of the new trait by US sugarbeet seed suppliers, growers have good weed control available to them using the current biotech seed available through sugarbeet seed companies.
As a small and close-knit industry, many growers understand the refining process and know that table sugar derived from sugarbeets and cane is the same. However, many consumers are not aware that refined sugar produced from sugarbeets and sugarcane is the same. As a matter of fact, it’s identical and further analysis of refined sugar makes the two sources indistinguishable from each other. How is this possible with two very different inputs? During the refining process, whether from sugarcane or beets, all nonessential components are stripped from the plant so that the end product is refined sugar. All living plants and animals, including sugarcane and sugarbeets, contain DNA which is the unique identity of each plant or animal. DNA contains all of the essential life components: carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. During the refinery process all nitrogen is removed from the remaining sugar, and with the nitrogen goes the DNA. What remains is the sugar made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, or table sugar.
Regardless of where sugar comes from, the North American sugarbeet industry continues to thrive and play a key role in agriculture and our food supply chain. Sugarbeet growers will continue to benefit from the current herbicide tolerant seeds while waiting for the next generation of herbicide tolerance.
“GM sugar beets save Idaho, Oregon growers millions”, S. Ellis Capital Press Published on January 20, 2015 4:37PM
“US Beet Sugar Industry, Submission to the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops, September 9, 2015. https://americansugarbeet.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/U.S.-Beet-Sugar-Submission.pdf
Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower