Hershey's Breakup With GMO Sugar Beets Carries Bittersweet Implications

This Valentine's Day, the sugar beet industry is probably questioning its long-term commitment to genetically modified (GM) seed. Almost one year ago, Hershey announced plans to focus on 'simpler' ingredients. Over the course of 2015, one aspect of this effort proved to be a gradual shift away from beet sugar in favor of cane sugar. Why? 95 percent of sugar beets produced in the US are grown from Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed. This is a clear win for GM-weary consumers who want to keep enjoying their classic Kisses. However, Hershey's ultimate motives leave a lot to unpack. But before we get into that, let's start with some sugar beet background. 

Farmers Fall Hard For Roundup Ready Seed

Sugar beets are slow-growing crops, which makes them exceptionally vulnerable to weeds. Traditionally, mass sugar beet plantings were only able to provide sufficient yields if farmers executed intense herbicide programs. While weekly applications of numerous chemicals posed obvious threats to human health and the environment, constant tractor passes resulted in heavy soil compaction. When Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beets entered commercial markets in 2008, farmers were love struck. The plants' resistance to the broad-spectrum herbicide, glyphosate (a probable carcinogen), enabled them to yield an even more robust crop with just a few chemical applications.

GM Sugar Beets Go to Court

The advent of genetically modified sugar beets wasn't so sweet for everyone involved. Many areas of sugar beet production are also home to farms that grow table beets and Swiss chard. Since these vegetables are all members of the Beta vulgaris species, they easily cross-pollinate. As sugar beet production saw rapid expansion, the likelihood of genetic contamination threatened to destroy the livelihoods of neighboring organic farmers.

Fun fact: The USDA's initial deregulation of GM sugar beets in 2005 occurred without an accompanying environmental impact assessment. This governmental passivity provided fertile ground for groups including the Center for Food Safety and Organic Seed Alliance to seek an injunction against all GM sugar beet planting and harvesting. While ultimately unsuccessful, their lawsuit led to a 2009 district federal court ruling that the USDA's preemptive deregulation had violated the National Environmental Policy Act. In 2010, the same district court ordered the halt of all new GM sugar beet plantings until the USDA provided a satisfactory environmental assessment.

The USDA, however, completely bypassed federal decision and instead implemented 'partial deregulation.' While this did provide some restrictions around GM sugar beet production, it ultimately perpetuated the sugar beet industry's total conversion to GM seed. By the time the USDA completed its assessment in 2012, the future of GM sugar beet production was already looking rosy.

A Shift in Big Food's Approach to Consumer Demand

Unfortunately for the sugar beet industry, legal clearance doesn't always translate into consumer approval. Over the past decade, the anti-GMO movement has gained immense traction. Advocacy around preserving natural seed stock and labeling GM foods has resulted in a slow but growing trend of companies quietly decreasing their reliance on GM ingredients. Hershey's sweetener transition is part of a much larger shift in corporate considerations. Given other recent developments around Big Food's changing relationship with genetic modification, it's unlikely that Hershey will be the only company to move away from GM beet sugar.

Can't Sugar Beet Farmers Just Say No to GMO?

Farmers are definitely feeling the sting of Hershey's slow fade with sugar beets. Unfortunately, they lack the resources necessary to move back to old cultivation practices. The quick conversion to GM seed resulted in a rapid depletion of natural sugar beet seed stock. It would take years to produce enough seed to meet current sugar beet demand. Many farmers have also disposed of the equipment used for traditional herbicide programs. In addition, ties have been broken with teams of foreign laborers that specialized in seasonal sugar beet weeding efforts. Overall, the startup and operation costs of natural sugar beet farming make returning to old ways highly improbable.

A Need for a Closer Look

Clearly, the US sugar beet supply will not be contributing to a GMO-free food system any time soon. However, let's take a step back before vilifying the sugar beet industry or giving Hershey too much credit. First, the adoption of Roundup Ready sugar beets was driven by the same industrial food economy that fosters Hershey's continued success. Secondly, the company's 'simple commitment to goodness' currently offers no concrete information around its sugar cane sourcing. This is concerning given recent reports on lingering sustainability issues throughout global sugarcane production.

Hershey's communications director recently emphasized that the beet sugar breakup was based only on consumer demand, not due to company concerns around the impacts of genetic modification. There is plenty of room for 'non-GMO' marketing to draw attention away from other unsustainable practices. So let's expand our focus to the ingredients that do make it into the products we buy, and support businesses that see sustainability as a guiding principle rather than a means by which to preserve market share.