I was raised next to a sugar cane farm. Here’s why I support GMO sugar beets.
In the early 90s, I lived in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, a city that was known for music, art, and its green Valle del Turbio. This valley carried the name of the Rio Turbio that runs through it. Along the valley were acres upon acres of sugarcane farms, and this sprawling area ran like a green ribbon through the urban region. From our home, the beautiful vista looked idyllic, until the sugarcane was harvested.
To harvest the sugarcane, which occurred more than once a year, the farms practiced controlled burning. This practice makes the harvesting process much easier since the blades of grass on sugarcane are sharp. Eliminating the grass by burning them off can make it safer for workers who often use machetes to cut the canes. At the same time the burning process eliminates pests, particularly snakes, which could harm the workers.
If you have never seen a controlled burn, it’s exactly as you would imagine: the smoke is visible from miles away and the ash rains down from the sky. For those of us living closest to the farm, our homes would be hit by ash that was inches long. For those on the opposite end of the city, the ash was mere particles in the air that would leave a layer of filthy dust on every surface.
Today, Barquisimeto is a city of a million inhabitants. Tens of thousands of additional people live in the urban area surrounding the city. Given Venezuela’s economic struggles and food shortages, I don’t know whether sugar is still produced by the farms I was raised next to. But by no means is Barquisimeto unique in its close proximity to sugar cane fields. Regions of India, Thailand, and islands in the Caribbean grow sugar cane in close proximity to urban areas. This is to say that sugar cane burning and its impact on health and environment are not insignificant problems.
However, demand for sugar derived from sugar cane is on the rise due to customer rejection of sugar derived from sugar beets, which are often genetically engineered. In 2015, Hershey’s decided to start switching their sugar to non-GMO sources, primarily sugar cane. Despite the fact that sugar from cane or beet have identical molecular structures, food manufacturers are betting on rising demands for non-GMO sources. Sugar from sugarcane seems to be a selling point, which is proudly noted on the ingredient list and marketing material for many brands.
Customers often select non-GMO ingredients based on the notion that these are healthier or better for the environment, which are noble reasons to support. However, as outlined in a previous piece written with several other scientists, non-GMO is not synonymous with healthier or more sustainable ingredients. In fact, the opposite may be true:.
- Sugarcane burning, which is practiced in many regions of the world including the US, has health and environmental impacts (see here, here, here, and here).
- Pesticides used with sugarcane are not necessarily better for workers or the environment (see table produced by Dr Andrew Kniss, summarizing this information).
- Although the United States produces sugar from sugarcane, it also imports a considerable amount from different regions of the world, including many developing nations with possibly poor labor conditions.
- Consumers may be purchasing non-GMO in attempts to eschew crops produced and patented by large agrichemical corporations. However, companies such as Monsanto offer non-GMO sugarcane seeds.
GMO sugar beets in the United States are tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate. This technology greatly improved the farming of this crop. Sugar beet farming also has its issues, primarily the development of herbicide tolerant weeds. At the same time, glyphosate is heavily embroiled in political and economic disputes involving its safety. However, this is one area where the weight of the scales, at least in the US, is not balanced. Given the choice of living next to a sugarcane farm again or a sugar beet farm, I’ll gladly pick the latter.
To learn more about this topic:
From NPR: As Big Candy Ditches GMOs, Sugar Beet Farmers Hit A Sour Patch
From NPR: The Environmental Cost Of Growing Food
From Marketplace: Why sugar beet farmers are all in on GMOs
Blog post outlining the impact of shifting to non-GMO sugar
Articles about rulings on glyphosate safety:
From Reuters: In glyphosate review, WHO cancer agency edited out “non-carcinogenic” findings
From Reuters: Large U.S. farm study finds no cancer link to Monsanto weedkiller
From European Food Safety Authority: Update on glyphosate toxicological profile