By Mitchell Clute

Roundup Ready sugar beets, genetically engineered to survive applications of the Monsanto herbicide glyphosate, will likely be entering the food supply in the coming months—and consumers will have no way to determine whether their foods are sweetened with GE sugar.

The first version of GE beets was approved in 1999, but before they were widely planted, major purchasers of sugar, including Mars, Hershey and American Crystal Sugar, promised not to purchase the GE sugar beets for processing. A second version of the beets was approved in 2005, and this time the companies are making no such promises. "The delay [in growing the GE beets] has been due to market pressure," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, based in Washington, D.C. "Back in 2001, the big buyers said they weren't interested in GE sugar, but this year the growers decided to go ahead."

There are many potential risks associated with GE beets, according to a coalition of farmers, consumer advocates and environmental groups that filed suit in federal court this past January to challenge the deregulation of Roundup Ready beets. The groups include Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Organic Seed Alliance and Center for Food Safety.

One issue is the increased use of the herbicide glyphosate. "Whenever a Roundup-Ready crop is approved by [the U.S. Department of Agriculture], Monsanto goes to USDA to get an increased tolerance for the maximum allowable [glyphosate] residue," said Freese. "In 1999, when the beets were first approved, [the Environmental Protection Agency] increased the maximum allowance on sugar beet roots 50-fold from 0.2 parts per million to 10 parts per million.

"These beets are engineered to survive a dousing with Roundup herbicide, but within a few years farmers will get into a vicious circle, with a huge increase in Roundup use and an epidemic of Roundup-resistant weeds," Freese said. There are currently 100 million acres of Roundup Ready crops in the U.S., primarily corn, cotton and soy. According to an independent analysis of USDA data conducted by the former agriculture chair at the National Academy of Sciences, between 1994, when Roundup Ready crops were first introduced, and 2004, herbicide use in the U.S. increased 15-fold, to 122 million pounds annually.

But organic farmers and seed producers are worried for other reasons. Because the beets are wind-pollinated and the vast majority of the U.S. sugar beet production comes from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, organic producers are concerned that the GE beets will cross-pollinate with organic table beets and other related species, such as chard. The National Cooperative Grocers Association is urging consumers to contact USDA to voice opposition.

But the damage may already be done. More than 95 percent of Idaho's sugar crop is expected to be GE this year, according to Amalgamated Sugar Co., though exact numbers for Oregon's crop are unknown.

Growers have largely dismissed the possible impact of the lawsuit. "It's not going to have any effect on the crop this spring," Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, told the ag Web site Capital Press. "Growers can clearly plan on moving forward."