Farmers’ Embrace of Sugar Beets for Ethanol Includes a Big Smooch for Monsanto

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Driven by the nation’s hunt for alternative fuels, California farmers are about to reintroduce a once-abandoned crop, sugar beets, as part of a pilot program for producing ethanol in a biofuel refinery by 2016.

And with it will almost certainly come a problem with superweeds.

Nowadays, when you grow sugar beets, you get a bonus: genetically-modified (GMO) crops from seeds made by biofuel giant Monsanto. The GMOs, which are engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s omnipresent Roundup herbicide, were introduced in 2008 and now make up 95% of sugar beet crops nationally.

Sugar beet enthusiasts say you can get nearly twice as much ethanol as from the same size  crop of corn, the source of 95% of the nation’s ethanol supply. Ethanol is used widely as a gasoline supplement. After clearing some legal hurdles last year, the state doled out a $5 million grant to a dozen farmers for construction of a demonstration sugar-beet-to-ethanol plant in Fresno County.

The legal hurdles were not insubstantial. A federal judge forbade the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from approving the GMO seed in 2010 after a lawsuit was brought by the Center for Food Safety. There had not been a requisite environmental impact report (EIR). But faced with the fact that Monsanto owned the sugar beet seed business, and an anticipated 20% drop in crop production if the ruling were followed, the USDA let farmers plant it anyway until the EIR was completed.

The report, finished in 2012, noted substantial problems from GMO seeds blowing to non-GMO fields and a significant threat from the development of superweeds that resisted all herbicides, but approved them nonetheless.

Nearly 50% of U.S. farms have superweeds, according to a study by Stratus, up from 34% in 2011. It is 92% in Georgia. The total acreage of farmland with superweeds soared 51% in 2012.

Superweeds have posed such a problem that many farmers are resorting to what’s called a “burndown” to get rid of them, according to Jon Rappoport at Before It’s News. Farmers drench their fields three times with highly-poisonous paraquat, banned in 32 countries, killing everything that grows. Then they grow their crops, spray on some Roundup, and harvest. Consumers need only wash, rinse and spit before eating. Or, as the case may be, before refueling.

Last year, some unknown senator slipped a provision into a 90-page agriculture bill that would allow GMO use even if a judge ruled that the USDA had improperly approved it. That got killed, but it showed up again this year in the Senate's 570-page Continuing Resolution to keep the government going. That was approved.

Monsanto was instrumental last November in defeating Proposition 37, an initiative that would have required labeling of GMOs in food.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Turning Beets into Ethanol: California Farmers Team up for Unique New Project (by Gosia Wozniacka, Associated Press)

Feds to Farmers: Grow GMO Beets or Face Sugar Shortage (by Tom Laskawy, Grist)

US Farmers Flood Fields with Dangerous Poison to Fight Monsanto Superweeds (by John Rappoport, Before It's News)

Biotech Firms Slip in Amendment Allowing USDA to Overrule Courts on Genetically Engineered Crops (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

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