Colorado farmer Steve Kelly brushes aside a small mound of dry yellow dirt to reveal a sugar beet seed that’s no larger than a peppercorn. It seems insignificant, but the seed is different from what he planted more than 20 years ago.
“The quality of the beet wasn’t as good and yield and everything that way wasn’t as good either,” he said.
Now all but 5 percent of sugar beet seeds in the U.S. are genetically modified, or GMO.
The genetically engineered sugar beet was introduced ten years ago and has allowed farmers to grow more beets on less land, the 2012 U.S. Agricultural Census said. Farmers also report using less water.
Harvest Public Media's Esther Honig explores why sugar beet farmers don't believe their GMO products should be labeled as such.
Industry experts say GMO has revolutionized sugar beet farming, but an upcoming decision from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has many farmers, Kelly included, wondering whether they’ll have to return to conventional seed.
GMO foods must be labeled by 2020 under a federal regulation. Beet sugar looks molecularly identical to any other refined sugar, but if the USDA decides it and all the products its used in get a GMO label, sugar cane will get a leg up because it’s a non-GMO crop — hurting sugar beet farmers and possibly raising consumer prices.
Sugar beets’ hold on consumers
Consumers may be unfamiliar with the sucrose-rich tubers; they’re not found in the produce aisle. But it’s likely you’ve eaten it: 55 percent of all sugar produced in the U.S. is from beets — refined into white granulated sugar — and it’s used to make everything from candy to bread.
Major companies like General Mills and Hershey have already replaced beet sugar with sugar cane in a number of products as a part of their “non-GMO” advertising to try to appeal to the 39 percent of Americans who, according to the Pew Research Center, believe GMO foods are unhealthy.
But a 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine suggest there’s a consensus from the scientific community that GMO foods are safe. And many in the sugar beet industry fear GMO labels will reinforce current misconceptions and push consumers away.
Rebecca Larson is the chief scientist with the Western Sugar Cooperative, an organization that’s collectively owned by more than 800 sugar beet farmers in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. She said it’s “just not fair” if uninformed consumers will see a GMO label and assume that means the product is unsafe or “better for the environment and therefore more sustainable.”
“We as a community need to go out and educate about how that can be completely the opposite,” she said.
But opponents to GMOs argue that labeling will give consumers more transparency about how a food was grown. Farmers use herbicides, namely glyphosate, on GMO crops, which Patty Lovera from the nonprofit group Food and Water Watch believes are bad for the environment and people’s health.
“There are farmers and farm workers involved in handling these chemicals. There’s runoff into our bodies of water,” she said, but didn’t have specifics on the sugar beet industry itself
Since adopting GMO sugar beets, Kelly said he’s used less herbicide on his fields in Greeley. The conventional sugar beets he used to grow required a cocktail of three different herbicides that had to be sprayed three to four times a year, “and a lot of times it didn’t work,” he said.
If the USDA decides to label sugar beet products as GMO and farmers returned to non-GMO beets, the effects may be felt at the grocery store.
A 2014 study found that if consumers prefer products without a GMO label, the cost of food will rise as companies purchase more non-GMO ingredients, which tend to cost more because they have lower yields.
Plus, ditching GMO seeds would require Kelly to hire workers to help weed his fields.
“It wouldn’t be feasible probably for us now,” he said.
The decision from the federal government is expected later this year.
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May 24, 2018 at 10:47AM
2018 sugarbeet planting remains behind schedule for most of the country.
The USDA released the Crop Progress Report for the week of April 16th. In the report, planting progress data for the country’s top four sugarbeet producing states were listed.
Idaho made significant progress from last week, having 47% of their crop in the ground compared to just eight percent the week before. Last year at this point, Idaho had 43% of their beets planted. The five year average is 51%.
Michigan has one percent of their beets planted. That is unchanged from last week. Their five year average for the third week of April is four percent.
Both Minnesota and North Dakota have yet to put any beets in the ground. Last year, Minnesota had 16% of their planting completed, just two percentage points shy of the five year average. North Dakota had 10% planted, which is also two percentage points behind their five year average.
On March 29th, the USDA released the Prospective Plantings report for 2018. The forecast calls for 1,112,900 planted acres of sugarbeets – down two percent from last year’s 1,131,200 planted acres.
As usual, Minnesota leads the beet states with a projected planted acreage of 422,700. That is followed by North Dakota at 199,100. If the projection holds true for North Dakota, it will be the first time since 1993 the Peace Garden State plants less than 200,000 acres of beets. Idaho and Michigan are the other two states projected to plant over 100,000 acre at 163,400 and 146,500 acres, respectively.
The biggest forecasted increase, percentage-wise, is for Oregon. The USDA expects 2018 planted sugarbeet acreage of 100,700, compared to 91,000 in 2017.
The all-time record for U.S. planted sugarbeet acreage occurred in 1969, when farmers planted 1,647,100 acres of the crop. The lowest planted acreage number since the early 1960s came in 1982, when U.S. farmers planted 1,054,200 acres of beets. More recently, there were 1,090,700 acres planted in 2008.
Dec. 13, 2017
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture in its Dec. 12 World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report forecast U.S. beet sugar production in 2017-18 at a record 5,359,000 short tons, raw value, up 409,256 tons, or 8%, from the November projection and up 5% from 5,103,000 tons in 2016-17, which was raised 2,000 tons from November.
“Recovery of sucrose from sliced sugar beets for the first three months of the August/July crop year from the Sweetener Market Data report provides the first empirically-based estimate of full crop year recovery,” the U.S.D.A. said. “That recovery is projected at 15.4%, in line with recent historical records.”
Including production from de-sugared molasses, total 2017-18 beet sugar production was projected at 5,530,000 tons, the U.S.D.A. said.
Total sugar production for 2017-18 was projected record high at 9,245,000 tons, up 409,000 tons from November with cane sugar unchanged at 3,886,000 tons. The previous beet sugar record was 5,119,000 tons in 2015-16 and the prior total sugar record was 9,032,000 tons in 1999-00.
U.S. sugar carryover on Oct. 1, 2018, was forecast at 1,802,000 tons, up 27,000 tons, or 1.5%, from November but down 34,000 tons, or 2%, from 1,836,000 tons estimated for 2017. The 2017-18 ending stocks-to-use ratio was revised up to 14.3% from 14.1% in November but was below 14.8% as the ratio for 2016-17.
Only minor adjustments were made to 2016-17 supply and use estimates.
For 2017-18, total U.S. sugar imports were projected at 3,326,000 tons, down 384,452 tons, or 10%, from November but up 82,000 tons, or 2.5%, from 3,244,000 tons last year. Tariff-rate quota imports were projected at 1,798,000 tons, up 42,000 tons from November and up 187,000 tons, or 12%, from 1,611,000 tons in 2016-17. Imports from Mexico were forecast at 1,268,000 tons, down 426,000 tons, or 25%, from November but up 67,000 tons, or 6%, from 1,201,000 tons last year.
Total supply in 2017-18 was forecast at 14,407,000 tons, up 27,000 tons from November and up 140,000 tons, or 1%, from 14,267,000 tons last year.
Projected use for 2017-18 was unchanged from November at 12,605,000 tons, including 12,400,000 tons for food.
For Mexico, 2017-18 beginning stocks, production and imports were unchanged. Domestic use was projected at 4,972,000 tonnes, actual weight, up 60,000 tonnes from November, while exports were projected at 1,217,000 tonnes, down 243,000 tonnes. Ending stocks were projected at 1,008,000 tonnes, up 183,000 tonnes, or 22%, from November and up slightly from last year.
For 2016-17, Mexico’s sugar imports were forecast at 93,000 tonnes, down 25,000 tonnes from November, domestic use at 4,851,000 tonnes, down 45,000 tonnes, and exports at 1,234,000 tonnes, up 20,000 tonnes, resulting in ending stocks unchanged at 1,002,000 tonnes.“Mexico sugar exports to the United States (in 2017-18) are reduced by 364,595 tonnes to 1.085 million, which is the Export Limit set by U.S. Department of Commerce in September 2017 because it exceeds the Target Quantity of U.S. Needs from this WASDE,” the U.S.D.A. said. “Exports to non-U.S. destinations for 2017-18 are residually projected at 131,298 tonnes.”
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December 13, 2017 at 08:44AM
The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service released the sugarbeet crop progress report for week ending Oct. 15th.
North Dakota is 89% complete with the 2017 sugarbeet harvest. That is now ahead of the five-year average of 81% and is an increase from 61% completed last week.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service released their weekly crop progress report on Monday.
Idaho is the front runner in terms of percent of sugarbeets harvested at 31%. That number is eight points ahead of this time last year.
Michigan has 25% of the crop harvest, compared to 18% last year.
North Dakota has harvested 23% of their sugarbeet crop, ahead of 20% last year.
Minnesota, the country’s largest sugarbeet producing state, has 17% of their crop harvested, behind last year’s mark of 18% and behind the five-year average of 24%.
Rain over the weekend has slowed the harvest in North Dakota and Minnesota, but a favorable five day forecast should help out growers in the upper Midwest. Alberta and Montana were slowed by several inches of snow that accumulated over the weekend.
The four states listed by the NASS accounted for 83% of the harvested sugarbeet acres in 2016.
2016 further cements its record-breaking status as sugar beet processing continues
Projected U.S. sugar production for 2016/17 is 9.313 million STRV, a 29,000-STRV decrease from the previous month’s projection. The current projection would be a fiscal year production record if realized.
Beet sugar production is projected to total 5.371 million STRV, unchanged from the previous month. The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) updated sugarbeet production in the January Crop Production Summary 2016 to 36.881 million short tons, an increase of 268,000 tons based primarily on higher yields than previously estimated.
The 2016/17 sugarbeet production is record-large, surpassing the previous year’s record level of 35.359 million short tons. The shrink rate for 2016/17—or the amount of harvested beets not sliced due to weight loss or spoilage during the sugarbeet storage processis currently projected to be 5.8 percent, in line with longer-run averages. After a warm November in several sugarbeet producing regions, a cold snap in December was well-timed for storing beets in non-ventilated piles.
There was a brief period during late December in the Red River Valley where temperatures rose above freezing. Initial reports from the region indicate that it is too early to see if that had an impact on the conditions of the stored beets. Weather during the upcoming winter months will continue to be an important factor influencing the amount and quality of the beets being sliced for the current campaign.