Did you know that more than half of the sugar produced in the U.S. comes from sugar beets? Unlike tropic-loving sugar cane, sugar beets can be grown in temperate climates, such as the American Midwest and certain Canadian provinces. An estimated 98% of the 1 million+ acres of North American farmland planted with sugar beets are genetically modified.
Numbers like this place sugar beets firmly on the Non-GMO Project Standard High-Risk List, ensuring that ingredients derived from these crops receive additional scrutiny during the verification process to ensure they came from non-GMO sources.
Here's what you need to know about this high-risk crop.
About a beet
Sugar beets are part of the flowering plant family, Beta vulgaris, and are closely related to leafy chard and red and gold table beets. However, sugar beets are the only family member that is widely-available as a GMO; there are no genetically modified table beets or chard on the market at this time.
The sugar beet was originally grown as a garden vegetable and fodder for domestic animals. During the 18th and 19th centuries, traditional crossbreeding techniques were used to maximize sugar beet's sucrose content, which led to the emergence of the commercial sugar beet market.
In 2008, Monsanto released "Roundup Ready" GMO sugar beets which could withstand multiple weedkillers applications without damaging the main crop. GMOs quickly took root. Today, they are nearly ubiquitous in the North American sugar beet industry.
Courts take a beet
The same year GMO sugar beets hit the landscape, a group of concerned stakeholders filed a lawsuit challenging the USDA's deregulation of the crop. The suit, which was filed by the Center for Food Safety, Sierra Club, Organic Seed Alliance and High Mowing Seeds, alleged the deregulation was unlawful because the USDA had failed to complete an environmental impact statement.
The path to resolution took several turns. Initially, a district court agreed with the plaintiffs, revoking the USDA approval and prohibiting the planting of genetically modified beets until an environmental impact assessment was completed. Despite the prohibition, the USDA provided temporary permits to some growers, leading to more litigation, and an order to destroy the illegally-planted sugar beet seedlings.
Ultimately, the district court's original ruling was overturned. The USDA issued new permits, conducted the environmental impact statement, and deregulated genetically modified sugar beets once again.
Despite legal challenges, Monsanto's sugar beet takeover was remarkably swift. A Grist article from 2010 notes that within two years of commercial release "the conventional [non-GMO] market has been essentially wiped out."
Sweet and sour
In 2022, the Bioengineered (BE) Food labeling law took full effect in the U.S., requiring BE disclosures on some products made from GMOs. While this law is intended to provide shoppers with information about GMOs, exemptions and loopholes mean that many products fall through the cracks. Sugar beets offer an excellent example.
Because sugar is highly refined, there is no testable DNA left in the final product. The BE labeling law doesn't require disclosures on products that do not contain detectable modified DNA — even if the sugar was derived exclusively from genetically modified sugar beets.
At the Non-GMO Project, we believe detectability isn't a sufficient trigger for labeling because it invalidates some perfectly valid reasons for choosing non-GMO. Some eaters are concerned that Roundup Ready GMOs lead to more glyphosate applications, biodiversity loss and superweeds. Others avoid GMOs because the patents and restrictive use agreements that govern them erode farmer rights and seed sovereignty.
No matter what drives the decisions you make at the grocery store, the Non-GMO Project is committed to protecting your (sweet) right to choose.