We Got the Beet
Did you know humans have been growing and enjoying beets for more than 4,000 years? Beets, or Beta vulgaris, are part of the Caryophyllale family like cacti, carnations, succulents, and many types of carnivorous plants. Thousands of years ago, they had long, thin, fibrous roots and were grown primarily for their tasty greens. Over time, scientists and farmers—including George Washington—used traditional breeding techniques to create the wide variety of hearty beets with thick roots that are available now.
The plump red and golden beets we love to roast, pickle, and puree are table beets. There are no genetically modified table beets on the market at this time!
Sugar beets are a little different. These pale white beets were bred (through traditional methods) for the high sucrose content that makes them so sweet. Food manufacturers get useful sugar out of the beets by slicing them and then cooking them in very hot water. After the sugar dissolves into the water, the resulting sugar liquid can be purified and dried into crystals. The remaining fibrous beet material is typically turned into pellets for animal feed.
Turn the Beet Around
GMOs took root in the sugar beet industry during the spring of 2008. That season, beet farmers throughout the United States began planting Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets in a coordinated effort. Nearly all sugar beet producers in the United States switched over to those herbicide-tolerant (Ht) plants at that time, allowing farmers to apply glyphosate directly to their beets.
That same year, the Center for Food Safety, Sierra Club, Organic Seed Alliance and High Mowing Seeds filed a lawsuit alleging that when the USDA deregulated Roundup-ready sugar beets in 2005, it did so illegally. The USDA should have completed an environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act, but failed to do so. Stakeholders were especially concerned about the potential for genetically engineered sugar beets to contaminate non-GMO beets.
A district court agreed: the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) had not properly considered the potential environmental risks of deregulating sugar beets. This court revoked the approval and granted an injunction prohibiting the planting of genetically modified beets until the USDA could complete an environmental impact statement.
Despite a court order prohibiting the planting of these GMOs, the USDA provided temporary permits to some growers. This led to additional litigation, and ultimately, an order to destroy the illegally-planted sugar beet seedlings on November 30, 2010. However, the original ruling was overturned just three months later. The USDA issued new permits, conducted the environmental impact statement, and deregulated genetically modified sugar beets once again.
Today, well over 95% of sugar beets grown in North America are genetically modified. The United States produces 4.5 million tons of beet sugar each year, accounting for more than half of domestic sugar production. Interestingly, sugar beet yield is higher in western Europe, where farmers do not grow genetically modified beets, than it is in the United States. The western European yield isn’t just higher—it’s growing faster as well.
Not surprisingly, the rise of Ht crops like these is directly linked to an increase in herbicide use. Domestic glyphosate use has grown dramatically since the introduction of GMOs, from 15 million pounds in 1996 to more than ten times that much by 2012. Worldwide, glyphosate use has increased 15 times over since GMOs hit the scene.
The rise of herbicide-resistant weeds is also directly related to these Ht crops. These so-called “superweeds” tripled between 2001 and 2010. There are now at least 38 different types of glyphosate-resistant weeds—a growing problem for the North American food system.
Sugar is an ingredient in most processed foods these days, so if you’re looking to avoid genetically modified sugar beets, it’s important to stick to products made with sugarcane, date sugar, or other non-GMO sweeteners. Sugar beets are also used to make molasses, another popular food additive.
Many types of yeast are grown on molasses or other sucrose solutions that come from genetically modified beets, which impacts baked goods, alcohol products, stocks and gravies, vitamins, and my personal favorite: nutritional yeast. Don’t forget about yeast extract, sugar, ethanol, and other beet-derived risk ingredients in personal care products!
The Beet Goes On
Today, candy companies are beginning to move away from GMO sugar in response to mounting consumer pressure. Top sugar users such as Hershey’s have reformulated popular confections with sugar from non-GMO sugarcane instead of sugar beets. Check out the full list of Non-GMO Project Verified confections and sweeteners!