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Flash in the Pan

Genetic engineering tough to beet


On March 25, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) responded to a lawsuit filed by several environmental and food safety advocacy groups. At issue was the USDA’s deregulation of the Roundup-Ready sugar beet, which has genetically engineered resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. The plant, also known as “event H7-1,” was engineered by German seed company KWS and biotech giant Monsanto.

The two companies had petitioned the USDA in 2003 to deregulate event H7-1, and in 2005 their wish was granted. At the time, the USDA announced the deregulation “would not present a risk of plant pest introduction or dissemination.”

Not true, according to Frank Morton, an organic beet and chard farmer in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Beet pollen can function as a plant pest, he argues, due to the fact that it can cross-pollinate with other members of Beta vulgaris, a species that includes sugar beets, table beets, and Swiss chard.

Morton serves on the rules committee for the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association. “We deal with how far apart the various crops can be planted. How far red cabbage must be from green, how far between sugar beets and Swiss chard, etc.,” he says. According to these rules, sugar beets must be separated from other Beta varieties by four miles, although in each case the distance can be negotiated by individual farmers, to account for variables like prevailing wind directions, or different flowering schedules.

But, Morton explains, a loophole allows event H7-1 to be grown within three miles of neighboring Beta crops.

This all but assures the spread of genetically modified sugar beet pollen in the Willamette Valley, where most of the nation’s sugar beet seed, and much of the table beets and chard, are grown. It means that virtually all sugar beets grown in the United States will be GM, as will much of the other Beta crops that grow so well in the valley.

To farmers who grow the crops organically, GM beet pollen is the economic equivalent of a plague of locusts. If genetically modified traits are found in a vegetable, the farm it came from loses its organic certification.

When Monsanto began engineering genetically modified organisms in the late 1980s, it faced a plague of opposition from anti-GMO consumers and activists. The resistance, which took many forms, helped push Monsanto’s stock price to an all-time low of less than $7 per share in 2002, when the company lost $1.7 billion.

Since then, Monsanto’s earnings and share prices have improved (share prices topped $129 in January, 2008), thanks largely to a shift in corporate strategy. High-profile GM foods, like table vegetables, were tabled in favor of low-profile crops, like corn and soy, which can disappear into the food chain in forms such as oil, syrup, and animal feed.

Thanks to this shift, and coupled with a campaign against labeling requirements for GM ingredients in processed food, public opposition wilted, and Monsanto began slowly winning the ground war over GM foods.

Alfalfa, the fourth most widely grown crop in the United States (after corn, soy, and wheat) is, via the cows that eat it, a major component of beef and milk. Roundup-Ready Alfalfa was set to become the next Monsanto-engineered organism to fly under the consumer radar and into the food chain when, in 2005, a group of alfalfa producers and nonprofits sued the USDA for approving Roundup-Ready Alfalfa without requiring an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a mandatory process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In a May 2007 injunction, the court barred any planting of RR Alfalfa until an EIS is prepared. The ruling formed a precedent that the plaintiffs in the sugar beet case hope will be followed. They argue that the USDA’s deregulation of sugar beets was, among other grievances, a NEPA violation.

What’s most troubling to farmer Frank Morton is that, since Beta vulgaris comes in separate male and female plants, the event H7-1 trait could have been engineered into the female line, which doesn’t produce pollen, rather than the male line, which does. “If they had engineered this trait in the females, we wouldn’t be having this problem,” he says.

When his complaints to Willamette Valley sugar beet seed growers on this point fell upon deaf ears, Morton contacted the Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend, Wash., and the lawsuit was born.

The USDA had until the end of March to respond to the filing, and last week it did, with a statement that boiled down to, “We’ll see you in court.”

“That they didn’t move to dismiss it indicates our case is strong,” says the plaintiffs’ lead attorney Kevin Zelig Golden, of the Center for Food Safety.

If Monsanto and seed company KWS could have reduced GM sugar beet pollen contamination in the Willamette Valley by engineering the event H7-1 trait exclusively into the non-pollinating female line, the question becomes, “Why didn’t they?” In the meantime, even if approval of H7-1 is suspended, thanks to two years of secret trials in the Willamette Valley, the damage may already have been done.

“If I were Earthbound Farms,” says Morton, referring to the organic salad behemoth whose bagged mix includes baby Swiss chard leaves, “I’d be testing my salad.”

Ask Ari: Don’t be ashamed of bacon cravings

Q: Dear Flash,

I’m a vegetarian with a weakness for bacon. When I smell it cooking, my mouth waters. I want to grab it off of other people’s plates at breakfast. At the salad bar, I want to sprinkle bacon bits on my forage. What’s going on, and what can I do about it?


—Baconed into a Corner

A: Sure, BIAC, you’re not a meat eater. And Larry Craig isn’t gay—he just likes playing footsie before enjoying anonymous sex with men in public bathrooms.

If you’re a vegetarian, you wouldn’t be having these desires. But you’re an omnivore, which means your body is designed to digest plant AND animal matter. That the smell of bacon makes you drool like Senator Craig at the Policeman’s Ball confirms it.

Like Craig, your desires are at odds with your values, and you do an imperfect (and unnecessary) job suppressing your perfectly normal desires in order to protect your imperfect and unnecessary values. That’s what’s going on.

As for what you can do about it, well, there are many shades of omnivore. There are locavores, of course, who only eat local meat. Another dietary species, wild-game-tarians, only eat meat that lived free until it died. There are several Californian subspecies, like sushitarians and ovo-lacto-semen-pornavores. And there is the category that I suspect you fall into: the bacon vegetarian. I suggest you indulge your leanings with some local, organic fried pork belly. Start slowly and gently, and see what happens.

But if you insist on denial, try this: Cut a brick of firm tofu into centimeter cubes, and fry them slowly over low heat in olive oil, stirring only after they start to stick. When the cubes weep out water, add a touch of honey and soy, and keep frying ’til they look, smell, and taste like bacon. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.

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