Sugar-Beet Flip-Floppers, and Other Sustainability News


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The Sour Taste of Success

Sugar beet farmers should have been more careful when they wished for a genetically modified future.

Two years ago, after the United States Department of Agriculture gave its blessing—prematurely it turns out—to the commercial planting of genetically modified (GMO) beets that could resist Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, beet growers, along with the seed companies that supply them, the processors that buy from them, and the confectioners and soft drink manufactures that rely heavily on sugar, made a pact with the GMO devil to abandon conventional sugar beets en masse in favor of genetically modified ones.

Some observers have suggested that if any big player had stayed with conventional beet sugar, it might have gained a completive advantage because consumers have shown a preference for non-GMO products when given a choice.

GMO sugar beets went from zero to 95 percent of the U.S. crop over a couple of growing seasons. Conventional sugar beet seed all but vanished from the market.

Faced with the court-imposed ban on GMO beets, sugar beet farmers fear that there will not be enough conventional seeds for them to put in a
full crop.

But Big Beet Sugar didn't get to savor its victory for long.

In August, a federal judge ruled that the USDA acted illegally by failing to undertake the required environmental assessment before it allowed GMO beets to enter the market. He said farmers could not plant the GMO seeds until a full assessment was completed.

Instead of obeying the ruling, the USDA announced plans to issue special permits that would allow farmers to plant the banned GMO beets. A group of conventional seed company and environmental groups subsequently initiated legal moves to stop the USDA's end run.

Faced with the court-imposed ban on GMO beets, sugar beet farmers, who grow about half the sugar Americans consume, fear that there will not be enough conventional seeds for them to put in a full crop. Economists at the USDA are predicting a 20-percent drop in sugar production in 2011 as a result.

The sugar industry is crying foul. But it's hard to feel sorry for them. They didn't have to abandon conventional production in the first place, and when the early court decisions went against them, they should have started looking for ways to grow more non-GMO seeds instead of seeking out legal loopholes.

Bye-Bye BPA?

A couple of weeks ago the Canadian health department declared bisphenol-A (BPA) a toxic substance, clearing the way for the government to formulate regulations limiting the use of the popular plastic, which is found in plastic-lined aluminum cans, bottles, and other packaged food containers. Earlier, Canada had banned the chemical, which can disrupt estrogen production and has been linked to birth defects and other reproductive problems, from use in baby bottles.

John Hendel: New Evidence Against BPA
John Hendel: Is It Harmful?

Environmentalists cheered the decision, and the chemical industry howled in outrage, claiming that the ruling put Canada at odds with such bodies as the European Food Safety Authority and the United States Food and Drug Administration, which continue to dither on the issue of BPA regulation.

Ultimately, the questions about BPA's future might be made by the food products industry. A recent survey of 26 major food and beverage companies conducted by Green Century Capital Management, a "green" investment group, showed that 32 percent of the firms had internal plans to phase out BPA, up dramatically from the 7 percent who had such plans a year ago.

If that trend continues, there will be nothing left for bureaucrats and industry advocates to squabble over.

An Unsustainable Discussion

"Sustainable," like "local" and "natural," is one of those adjectives that everyone in the food business likes to apply to their products. But no one has bothered to define it.

By walking out in a huff, was Big Ag sending a signal that there's no place
for it at the sustainability table?

So one has to applaud the American National Standards Institute—a non-profit organization whose mandate is to set voluntary consensus standards for products in the United States—for wading into the murky questions about exactly what the term "sustainable agriculture" should mean. In 2008, a committee of 58 representatives from across the political spectrum of food production was formed, everyone from small organic advocates and environmental organizations to executives at CropLife America, a trade group representing the agrichemical industry.

Late last month, 11 members of the committee representing the interests of industrial agriculture walked out, saying in a mass letter of resignation, "The Committee is dominated by environmental groups, certification consultants, agro-ecology, and organic farming proponents. These groups have neither the vision nor desire to speak for mainstream agriculture and the 95 percent of farmers who will be materially affected by any resulting standard."

But perhaps their actions spoke louder than their words. By walking out in a huff, was Big Ag sending a signal that there's no place for it at the sustainability table?

I'll Raise a Mug to That

Last week, the National Organic Standards Board—the folks who get to determine just what is and is not organic under USDA rules—voted that beginning in 2013, all beers that call themselves USDA Organic must be made with organic hops.

That an ingredient as integral to beer and ale as hops could, even if raised with all manner of chemical fertilizers and sprays, could be included in "organic" beer might come as a surprise. But nothing is quite as it seems when it involves the National Organic Program. After lobbying, often from large processors, the USDA created a dirty little semi-secret called the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

The list is a loophole that allows nearly 50 inorganic farm products to be used in products that can still legally call themselves organic. The list allows "organic" sausage meat to be stuffed into the intestinal casings of inorganic animals. Agricultural plants used as food coloring (blueberries, beets, grapes) can be conventionally grown. The same holds true for cornstarch and a variety of other thickeners and spices.

And that doesn't even take into account the dozens of non-agricultural products that can still be used in "organic" products. Care for a little tetrasodium pyrophosphate in your "organic" soy burger, anyone?