How genetically engineered sugar beets impact the farmer, the factory and you

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RUPERT, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) You could say sugar-beet sugar runs through the blood of Luke Adams.

“I grew up a sugar beet farmer,” Adams said. “My parents grew sugar beets, so I’m second generation sugar beet farmer, third generation farmer here in Idaho.

He said he has seen the changes in growing firsthand, from irrigation to GPS harvesting. It’s all helped his job get easier.

But nothing has helped quite like the genetically modified seed. Adams said growers are spraying less herbicides, using less water and diesel, and they have better soil.

On top of all that they have a lot more beets. Before genetically modified seeds, growers would yield anywhere from 25 to 30 tons of beets per acre. Now it’s closer to 45 tons per acre.

“Still with real high sugar content,” Adams said.

This technology hasn’t just changed life for the grower but for the researcher.

Don Morishita is another expert on sugar beets, or rather an expert on their number one threat. He’s a weed scientist at the University of Idaho, and he was brought on in 1990 to help growers with their biggest issue.

“At that time the sugar beet growers considered weeds as their number one pest problem,” Morishita said.

He saw the transition from conventional sugar beets to GMO sugar beets, and he confirmed what the grower said: It changed everything.

“They went from having to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort and resources controlling weeds in sugar beets to it becoming very simple for them,” he said.

That means his job has changed a little, but there’s still plenty to do.

He said there’s potential for issue with GMO crops in that a seed being resistant to one herbicide means that’s the one farmers rely on, and that could alter the types of weeds we see. That means farmers need to be careful with their weed control, but consumers don’t need to be scared about eating the crop – especially with sugar beets.

“When those beets are processed that sugar is extracted from the beet roots… that whole processing destroys any of the DNA of the GMO that’s in those beets,” Morishita said.

Even if the beets weren't processed, Morishita cited a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that failed to find substantiated evidence of a difference in risks of GMO crops and conventionally grown crops.

Sugar beet processing happens at Amalgamated Sugar. It’s one of the Magic Valley’s largest employers, and it’s the only place southern Idaho sugar beets go.

The company said their end product is molecularly identical to any other refined sugar, and Morishita agrees. If you put it under a microscope, you wouldn’t be able to tell which sugar molecule is from a conventional sugar beet, a GMO sugar beet or a sugar cane.

Amalgamated Sugar said that doesn’t seem to matter to some companies that have stopped buying their sugar in favor of non-GMO cane sugar.

“I would say that there is a growing percentage of companies that are shifting in that direction,” said Jessica McAnally, the communications specialist for the company. “It has impacted Amalgamated Sugar. Not to the point where it’s hurting us drastically, but it’s alarming.”

It’s hard for McAnally to not take this personally. Not only does she work for Amalgamated Sugar, but she comes from a long line of sugar beet farmers. She said the choice to switch to genetically engineered seeds was not easy. It was a decision that no grower took lightly.

“It’s important to remember that farmers are mothers, fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers,” she said. “Why would they make these choices to grow this crop if it’s going to be detrimental to their land, their livelihood or their families?”

If the market demands it, Luke Adams said he’d go back to conventional sugar beets, but he’d be a minority. He said most growers wouldn’t.

“It’s just part of our way of life,” he said, “but it would be a significant challenge to basically go back and take steps backwards as far as our sustainability, our efficiency, and it would be a really difficult thing to do as a farm.”

Instead he’s working to educate, inviting people to ask him questions about how GMOs have impacted him and how that impacts the consumer.

“Then when they go to the grocery store, they know if they reach for a bag of white satin sugar, they know that we are looking out for the consumer and would only produce a safe healthy product,” he said.

Luke Adams shows desired beet cut after defoliator drives through his field in Rupert, Idaho on Oct. 11, 2017.

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