America has a sweet tooth. We eat over 8 tons of sugar derived from different sources every year. For decades farmers provided a myriad of food makers with the sugar they needed without relying on GM sugar beets. But with promises made by Monsanto in 2008 (the year genetically modified sugar beet seeds were introduced), farmers began counting on increased yields and reduced costs. Now they face record low sales as American consumers demand non-GMO food.
The trend for consumers to demand non-GM, organic food is pushing a demand for non-GM sugar beets, and food producers are making that clear to farmers in Michigan, North Dakota, Idaho, and other states who switched to GM seeds when they were introduced just under a decade ago. With beets accounting for 60% of all of America’s sugar needs annually, even a small reduction in their use would cause farmers to feel the pinch.
Food companies are feeling the backlash from customers for not heeding their heavy requests for non-GM foods.
“Companies including Hershey Co, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc , Unilever Plc subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc and General Mills Inc have pledged to ditch GMO ingredients in some products, bowing to customer pressure. “Millennials care about the ingredients that are in our products,” said Eric Boyle, director of responsible sourcing at Hershey. “Simple ingredients are a long-term trend. This is where things are going.”
Mounting pressure from consumers also means that GM sugar beets saw the lowest sales since GM seeds were first introduced. Sugar beet demand (with most of all sugar beets being grown in the US being genetically modified) fell to less than 41% of the U.S. total of 11.8 million tons (10.7 million tonnes) in the last fiscal year, a record low down from 47% of 10.4 million tons in the 2008 crop year. 2008 was the year the biotech seeds were introduced on a commercial scale, according to U.S. government data dating from 1992.
The US sugar beet market is currently protected through quotas and marketing allotments (government subsidies) which give growers a 4-cent a pound premium over global prices, which have lately been depressed due to oversupply.
Refined cane sugar typically trades at a slight premium over refined beet sugar. Raw sugar costs about 25 cents a pound in the United States.
Food makers are also turning to more healthy sugars like coconut sugar and certified, non-GM honey in order to meet consumer demand. Coconut sugar comes from palms, though, and their harvest poses another problem. Coconut sugar is said to cause fewer spikes in blood glucose levels, but many coconut trees are ‘retired’ to simply provide sap that is then turned to processed sugar, causing a shortage of coconuts.
Sustainable sugar sources are out there though, and they certainly don’t require genetic engineering. Even Bacardi has promised 100% sustainable sugarcane sourcing.