Sugar beet growers happy with seed ruling |

Sugar beet growers happy with seed ruling

Bill Jackson
Greeley, Colo.

Western Sugar Cooperative officials and Colorado sugar beet growers are happy with a decision by a judge in San Francisco who ruled that genetically engineered sugar beet seeds can be used until an environmental review of the seeds is completed.

A coalition of organic growers and environmental groups filed suit to ban the use of the seeds.

Monsanto Co.’s Roundup Ready seeds were used extensively by Western Sugar and other growers in Colorado a year ago. As a result, growers were able to save on labor costs – in the past they had to be weeded by hand – and Western Sugar officials credited the use of the seed in part for reducing loss of the crop during the growing season.

As a result, Colorado beet farmers had one of their best harvests in history.

Kent Wimmer, spokesman for Western Sugar, said during last year’s harvest that the advent of Roundup Ready seed and a seed treatment against insects “revolutionized the industry.” Farmers can spray Roundup Ready on beets and not kill the plants.

Usually, he said, the company budgets for a 6 percent to 10 percent loss of each year’s crop due to weather and disease, but in 2009 that loss was less than

1 percent. About 35,000 acres of sugar beets were harvested in Colorado last year, with 12,500 of those in Weld County.

Frank Eckhardt of La Salle, who will plant about 450 acres of sugar beets this year, said he has his Roundup Ready seed “already in the barn.” While the ruling allows him to plant those seeds again this year, he worries about next year.

“There’s not any conventional seed left. They quit producing that last year, so this year isn’t the problem, it’s next,” Eckhardt said.

He said planting will begin in a couple of weeks. But he added that a fallout from last year’s big crop – Greeley area growers averaged 30 tons to the acre – was that Western Sugar cut back the acreage by 10 percent to 15 percent in its growing areas of Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana for this year.

Western Sugar’s Wimmer referred any comment concerning this week’s ruling to the Sugar Industry Biotech Council.

In a prepared statement, the council said: “We are pleased that the court denied the request and recognized the significant negative impact that an immediate ban on planting would have caused to growers, processors, rural communities and the U.S. sugar supply.”

Wimmer confirmed, however, that acreage adjustments have been made this year in order to maximize processing capabilities.

“The good news is we’re producing a whole lot more beets per acre than at any time in the past, so we have to adjust acreage to the slicing (processing) capabilities of each area,” he said, noting that Western Sugar and other U.S. sugar processors are also allocated to sell only the amount of sugar the USDA allows each year.