The GMO sugar myth

Posted 1/12/16

Hershey Co. recently stopped using sugar from sugar beets, not due to worries about GMOs, but because of consumer demand, according to the Minneapolis, Minnesota, Star Tribune. Sugar beets traditionally bought by Hershey Co. came from Minnesota — …

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The GMO sugar myth


Sugar beets take a hit due to misconceptions about GMOs

Just like there’s no such thing as the boogeyman, there’s also no such thing as GMO sugar — but public misconception about genetically modified food could be cause for concern for sugar beet producers.

Hershey Co. recently stopped using sugar from sugar beets, not due to worries about GMOs, but because of consumer demand, according to the Minneapolis, Minnesota, Star Tribune. Sugar beets traditionally bought by Hershey Co. came from Minnesota — creating an impact of about $5 billion, according to Klodette Stroh, national sugar chairwoman for Women Involved in Farm Economics and Sen. Mike Enzi’s Ag adviser for Park County.

“The consumers are being misled,” said Ric Rodriguez, a Powell farmer and vice-chairman of the Western Sugar Cooperative Board of Directors. “It is disappointing they are bowing to activists against GMOs, but it is a marketing ploy is all it is to me.”

The reason for this is because, on a molecular level, there’s no such thing as GMO sugar — all of it is identical.

Know your GMO

GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms, and the genetically modified component of sugar beets is not where the sugar comes from.

The modified part for sugar beet sugar is limited to the plant because sucrose (sugar) contains no DNA, regardless of if it comes from sugar cane or sugar beets — meaning no lab could determine if the sugar originated from sugar cane, sugar beets, or from sugar beets from a GMO seed. All traces of DNA and plant protein are destroyed in the refining process, similar to how beer brats have the alcohol cooked out of them and are safe to serve to children.

The genetically modified part is the seed, which allows the plant to tolerate glyphosate. This was done by introducing a different version of a gene that naturally occurs in all plants and allows it to withstand use of Roundup.

“It (glyphosate) is a type of salt is all it is — it kills the other weeds, it has nothing to do with the sugar beets,” Stroh said.

GMO sugar beet seed was approved for use in 1994, but lawsuits were filed for more studies and use of the seed didn’t begin until the late 2000s, Rodriguez said.

Now all sugar beet seeds are genetically modified, making it impossible for American sugar beet farmers to go back to non-GMO seeds, Stroh said.

“It is hard for consumers to understand that it is just the seed that is genetically modified,” Rodriguez said.

Prior to this change in 2009, multiple chemicals were sprayed — increasing cost, time and chemical exposure for the plant. Rodriguez estimated about five or six different chemicals were sprayed on sugar beet fields prior to using GMO seeds.

“It is actually safer and we take less passes over it (the field),” Rodriguez said, noting that sugar cane fields also spray chemicals. 

Many countries banned GMO crops, but the exception is made for sugar because it is understood that there is no such thing as GMO sugar. For instance, GMO crops are banned in Australia, but Australia accepts imports of sugar made from GMO sugar beets and labels them as GMO-free since the final product contains no genetically engineered traits, according to a report by Rebecca Larson that was featured in the Genetic Literacy Project. Larson holds a doctorate in plant science with an emphasis in plant pathology.

“Warnings to consumers to boycott so-called GMO sugar makes no scientific sense,” Larson wrote, adding that every sugar beet processing plant in the U.S. and Canada was screened by independent testing organizations and all of the sugar was found to be GMO-free.

Rodriguez compared the strategy to the misconception that brown eggs come from free range chickens, but the egg color is actually determined by the chicken’s color.

“If they can say it is non-GMO, more might buy it,” Rodriguez said. “People are misinformed and get taken advantage of, and it is a shame.”

Money talks

In Wyoming, the sugar industry provides 3,500 jobs and holds a $4.4 million impact, Stroh said. Agriculture as a whole has a $108 million impact for Park County.

“That is a lot of money and we produce the most sugar in Park and Big Horn counties,” Stroh said.

The Pepsi manufacturer in Worland was one of the Big Horn Basin’s big customers, she said. 

Sugar beets are an essential rotation crop for farmers in the Big Horn Basin, Stroh said. If demand for sugar beets came to a stop, the impact would spread into all aspects of the area’s economy, since production isn’t limited to just farmers and the processing plant in Lovell — there is also hired help in the fields, truck drivers and more, she said.

Western Sugar doesn’t get involved in or discuss the decisions its customers make, said Kent Wimmer, Western Sugar’s director of shareholder relations and governmental affairs.

Local sugar production isn’t seeing any impacts from Hershey’s decision yet, but there are requests specifically for sugar that comes from sugar cane, Rodriguez said. Sugar cane production is limited to parts of Florida and Louisiana and the rest is imported, he said.

“Bringing sugar in from other countries is not safe because we have no idea what they are spraying on it — we don’t know where it comes from or what is done to it,” Stroh said. “They want to bring cheap sugar into the country and in return get our dollar for a sugar we don’t know what they have done to it.”

If more major food manufacturers follow Hershey’s example, it will mean an increase in (food) cost, Rodriguez said.

“I am concerned other companies might take after them,” Stroh said. “That is going to cause trouble because there is no fact behind it.”