NEW YORK — A new Web campaign seeks to encourage major food manufacturers to help prevent the widespread planting of genetically modified sugar beets. Once harvested, sugar derived from the beets will be used to sweeten thousands of food products.
The initiative is being spearheaded by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. Campbell's Soup, Kellogg's, Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, Hershey's, Sara Lee and McDonald's are among the 63 companies they're targeting.
“‘Don't mess with sugar’ is our message,” said Leslie Lowe, director of the energy and environment program at ICCR. “General Mills will not use genetically engineered wheat. Anheuser-Busch does not use genetically engineered rice. Now it's time for these companies to show the same leadership by making it clear that they won't try to sneak GM sugar into the diets of Americans.”
Sugar derived from GM sugar beets will not be segregated from sugar derived from conventional sugar beets in the marketplace.
Food manufacturers are not required to identify whether an ingredient is derived from a genetically modified crop.
At the source of all the controversy are “Roundup ready” (RR) sugar beets, or sugar beets that have been genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate, an ingredient in an herbicide sold under the name Roundup.
Proponents of GM sugar beets say the seeds yield crops that support easier weed control and less dependence on herbicides. Critics counter that health problems have been linked to genetically modified foods, and cross-pollination of organic crops and the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds will likely occur.
“Weeds are the biggest problem for these farmers — they're currently using a different chemical mix, and it requires five or six different applications,” said Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, Washington.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture initially approved RR sugar beets in 1999, but manufacturers like Hershey's were instrumental in keeping them out of the marketplace. Upon request for comment, Hershey's directed SN to the National Confectioners Association, which did not respond.
Although Kellogg's did not return SN's request for comment, company spokeswoman Kris Charles told The New York Times that her company “would not have any issues” buying such sugar for products sold in the United States, because “most consumers are not concerned about biotech.”
Retailers like PCC Natural Markets are urging shoppers to empower themselves by scrutinizing the ingredient lists on food labels.
“If a label doesn't say pure cane sugar or organic sugar, it would likely contain GM sugar,” said Trudy Bialic, PCC's director of public affairs.
Last month, PCC challenged suppliers to practice full disclosure.
“We request that the manufacturing community verify non-organic ingredients as non-GMO [genetically modified organism] and identify GMO ingredients on label,” it said in a letter to its trading partners.
Bialic related that PCC would not source product from manufacturers that fail to verify that their products are free of sugar derived from GM sugar beets.
The variety of RR sugar beet seeds scheduled to be planted this spring was deregulated by the USDA in 2005. In January, farmers, food safety advocates and conservation groups filed a suit that challenges the deregulation and seeks a thorough assessment of environmental, health and associated economic impacts of the deregulation.
Markwart contends that sugar derived from the GM sugar beets is safe.
“The sugar that is being produced from the RR sugar beets is the same as the sugar we've been producing for a hundred years — we've tested it, and it's no different,” he said. “The beet is a bit different, but when it's processed all the DNA and protein is removed.”
The ICCR aims to influence consumers to visit www.dontplantgmobeets.org  and send a form email to up to 63 food manufacturers urging them “to publicly oppose the spring 2008 planting of genetically modified sugar beets.” It goes on to say, “If you fail to label your food or beverage as containing genetically modified sugar, I will have to operate on the assumption that it DOES contain the product … and I will avoid it just to be safe.”
More than 50% of Americans have said they would reject genetically modified foods if given a choice, according to ICCR.
“Consumer concern about the mounting evidence of health problems linked with genetically modified foods will likely reach a tipping point in the near future,” said Jeffrey Smith, author of “Seeds of Deception” and “Genetic Roulette.”
As part of the Campaign for Healthier Eating in America, brochures, books and DVDs/CDs that impart the message “Healthy eating means no GMOs” will be distributed to millions of consumers in natural food stores nationwide, said Smith.