Sugar beets make for a pretty sweet industry in Montana. In 2008, it raked in $41 million, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, and beets were used in everything from Flathead Distillery Vodka to nationally marketed sugar. But an ongoing court case relating to the environmental impacts of genetically modified sugar beets has put the industry's future in question.
The vast majority of Montana beets are planted with Monsanto Co.'s genetically modified Roundup Ready seeds, which make weed control easier for farmers but are contentious for their potential to cross pollinate with natural chard and table beet plants during seed production. On March 16, plaintiffs were denied an injunction in federal court that would have banned Roundup Ready beets for the 2010 season. In his order, Northern California District Judge Jeffrey White cited multiple reasons for his ruling, including economic hardships and job losses in the farming industry, as well as an overall increase in the price of sugar. But his decision won't be the last word on the issue.
"He hasn't ruled out a future injunction," says Mathew Dillon of the Organic Seed Alliance, one of the plaintiffs in the case. "We have high hopes that there will be an injunction this summer."
Many Montana sugar beet producers and a spokesman for the American Sugarbeet Growers Association (ASGA) declined to comment on the case because litigation is ongoing. Meanwhile, the Sugar Industry Biotech Council, which represents the ASGA, calls Roundup Ready beets vital for helping farmers protect crop yields, lessen environmental impacts and maintain a "consistent, uniform supply of sugar for North American consumers," according to its website.
But not all farmers are accepting of the technology. Jonda Crosby of the Montana-based Alternative Energy Resources Organization says some farmers are wary of the potential for Monsanto to gain a monopoly over sugar beets as they have with other crops.
"Do we want sugar beets to go the way of corn and soybeans?" asks Crosby. "Farmers are increasingly concerned about the integrity of the seed they rely on in the face of genetic engineering, since many consumers demand food products that are free of biotechnology material."