Features International Sugar Journal

GMO: The insanity of indulging ill-informed consumers

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds:

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

William Shakespeare (Sonnet 94)

If the demonization of sugar is not bad enough, America’s sugar beet growers face additional woe on its doorstep – increasing consumer backlash as number of US food companies jump on the bandwagon to move away from ingredients from genetically modified (GMO) crops. Practically all of the beet sugar produced in USA comes from GMO Roundup Ready sugar beet. Food manufacturers are particularly responsive to social media-savvy Millennials, the generation of people now in their 20s and 30s, who are perceived to care more about the ingredients on their plates. The growing list of companies pledging to ditch GMO ingredients include Hershey Co, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc, Unilever Plc subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc, General Mills Inc, and Dannon, a subsidiary of Danone SA. Whereas misuse of science has prevailed in demonization of sugar, with GMO beet, it seems that wilful ignorance has swayed over compelling economic and environmental benefits that the technology confers.

Beet growers in the USA rapidly adopted GMO Roundup Ready sugar beet developed by Monsanto when seeds became widely available in 2008 because of its convenience and the technology allowed effective control of weeds using glyphosate. Growers typically use two applications of glyphosate and have excellent weed control. However, with conventional non-GMO beet, it would mean going back to spraying the crop “every 10 days or so with a “witches brew” of five or six different weedkillers”, according to the beet grower Andrew Beyer supplying to American Crystal. “The chemicals we used to put on the beets in [those] days were so much harsher for the guy applying them and for the environment,” he says. “To me, it’s insane to think that a non-GMO beet is going to be better for the environment, the world, or the consumer.”1 According to another beet grower, “hiring crews” to hand weed non-GMO would cost US$500/acre, compared with US$25/acre with the application of glyphosate.2 Further, GMO beet has facilitated the introduction of conservation tillage which improves soil health, reduces soil erosion and preserves soil moisture.3

If the impressive benefits from GMO beet are denied through willful ignorance, it should come as no surprise that the science refuting the transfer of any transgenes proteins to crystal sugar is also conveniently ignored.

From juice purification stage, subsequent steps in beet and cane sugar production are fairly identical. In a paper by Joyce et al4, the researchers analysed sugar from genetically modified sugarcane: – tracking transgenes and transgene products. The researchers undertook “molecular analysis of the raw sugar sample together with samples collected during each processing step of the laboratory crystallisation process (fibre, juice, syrup, filter mud and molasses) [to elicit] the presence of transgenes (DNA) and their products (protein). This testing conclusively showed that although DNA and protein was present in gm sugarcane juice and fibre, it was absent from any samples taken from subsequent processing and crystallisation steps. The sugar compositions of juice and raw sugar produced from gm cane were indistinguishable from those of non-gm cane sourced from the same trial. This study showed that sugar crystallised from gm sugarcane plants does not contain residual DNA or proteins of the introduced transgene(s) using conventional molecular techniques.”

As Kevin Folta2 eloquently points out, “In this blazing case of backwards thinking, consumers are demanding the worst choice for farmers and the environment. [GMO beet is] an advance in science that enhanced worker safety and environmental stewardship from other practices. It is truly troubling that companies are being coerced into costly decisions that have no effect on what the consumer eats, other than raising its cost, and producing it with greater environmental impact. It is what happens when we turn a blind eye to science, and accept marketing scams and activist campaigns over sound decisions made from evidence.”


  1. Dan Charles (2016) As big candy ditches GMOs, sugar beet farmers hit a sour patch http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/05/12/477793556/as-big-candy-ditches-gmos-sugar-beet-farmers-hit-sour-patch
  2. Kevin M. Folta (2016) Sweet Irony: The Environmental Impacts Of GMO Sugar Science Denial http://www.science20.com/kevin_folta/sweet_irony_the_environmental_impacts_of_gmo_sugar_science_denial-172630

3.    Andrew Kniss (2016) Market shift to non-GMO sugar loss for environment https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/05/16/market-shift-to-non-gmo-sugar-loss-for-environment/

  1. A. Joyce, S-Q. Dinh, E.M. Burns and M.G. O’Shea (2013) Sugar from genetically modified sugarcane: Tracking transgenes, transgene products and compositional analysis. Int Sugar Jnl, 115 (1380): 864-867