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Support Sugar Beet Farmers

Earlier today I was sent out, through rain and fallen snow, to visit the local grocery store for various last minute cookie ingredients, including confectioner’s sugar. The only brand I could find had this prominent label:

Powdered sugar at the local grocery store

First of all I’ve never understood why people care wether a given cup of sugar come from sugar cane or sugar beets. Regardless of source, white sugar is at least 99.9 percent pure* sucrose. Sucrose is a single molecule with an exact structure that is the same regardless of source. (Like salt crystals, or de-ionized water it’s a pure substance, only one step up from elements like carbon and oxygen).

Sucrose molecule

A model of the sucrose molecule. All sucrose, regardless of source, will have this same structure. If it doesn't, it's not sucrose. Image from wikimedia and distributed under the creative commons 3.0 share alike license.

That said, I’ve never before seen a label on a bag of sugar that proudly announced what it is NOT (beet sugar). I don’t know if this is a reaction to the current publicity about¬†herbicide resistant sugar beets, or the old feelings about the, non-existent, differences between sugars refined from different plant sources taken to their logical extreme, but either way, in this christmas of all christmases, is not the time to be kicking beet farmers when they are down. (more…)

Genetically Engineered Crops: Sugar Beet

Two sugar beets. From the USDA via wikipedia. (USDA you are awesome)

Two sugar beets. From the USDA via wikipedia. (USDA you continue to be awesome)

Scientific Name: Beta vulgaris*

Genetically Engineered Trait: Herbicide resistance.

Details of Genetic Engineering:

Sugar beets tolerant of the herbicide glyphosate (created by Monsanto) were de-regulated by the USDA in 2005**. ¬†The beets were first grown commercially in 2008. Before the first seeds were even in the ground, the USDA was being sued in California for approving their cultivation. This fall (2009), a federal judge named Jeffery White ruled that the study of the environmental impacts of glyphosate tolerant beets (part of the data the USDA considered in its decision to deregulate the beets) should have considered the economic impacts of the herbicide tolerant beets on organic farmers. Since the ruling came at the end of the growing season,*** there was no time to breed new conventional seed to plant next spring. There may be enough seed next year, but if so it’ll be a stretch.

I’m keeping sugar beets on the list of genetically engineered crops, because there’s a still chance the plants will be grown next year. The judge still hasn’t decided if his own ruling should result in a ban on growing the beets. That’s all the detail I have room for here, but if you’re interested in the court case and the science behind it, I’d recommend checking out Anastasia’s excellent in depth follow up to the judge’s ruling.

About Sugar Beets: (more…)