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GMO DISPUTE: Sugar Beet Labeling Fight Threatens Local Farmers

Candy Makers Shifting to Cane Sugar Grown in the South

May 14, 2016       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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With candy makers like Hershey's now buying only cane sugar instead of genetically modified beet sugar, Michigan Sugar Company has made a strategic acquisition in cane processing to meet the market.

To hedge their economic bets, Bay City-based Michigan Sugar recently acquired the Detroit area cane sugar processing firm AmCane LLC. That firm operates an organic farm, refines sugar cane and produces specialty sugars at its plant in Taylor, Michigan.

Although they may have to dodge some other issues, it seems Michigan Sugar is ahead of the game.

Maker of Pioneer and Big Chief brand sugars, the firm says the acquisition of AmCane will increase the firm's revenues by over $60 million and increase its sugar sales volume by nearly 15 percent.

AmCane employs 100 workers at their two facilities and refines a broad line of specialized cane sugar products including Liquid Sucrose, VLC Liquid Sugar, Evaporated Cane Juice, Large/Coarse Grain Sugar, and Boiled Brown Sugar.

"Acquiring AmCane allows us to expand our value-added offerings," says Mark Flegenheimer, President, and CEO of Michigan Sugar. "Adding cane sugar products to our product lineup will allow us to better serve our customers while maintaining a keen focus on value-enhanced products."

David Rosenzweig, CEO of AmCane, adds, "We are delighted to see AmCane join the Michigan Sugar family. Their strong financial condition will provide AmCane the needed resources to prosper for many years."

Dannon Yogurt and Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream have followed Hershey's in announcing they are shunning sugar from GMO sugar beets.

Critics of GMO grown crops argue they contribute to the industrialization of agriculture and question their safety.

These startling industry trends have the potential to uproot the future growing plans of mid-Michigan farmers, especially the 1,000 grower-owners of Michigan Sugar.

Last December, a bare four months ago, Michigan Sugar announced that the grower-owned cooperative is going to invest more than $125 million into its four plant locations in Bay City, Caro, Sebewaing and Croswell, and into its agricultural department.

However, since sugar cane is grown only in the South, if the GMO sugar market continues to deteriorate, thousands of Michigan and other Northern farmers may have to rethink their choice of crops.

And, to top it all, sugar cane processors are embroiled in a trade dispute with Mexico now being litigated in the U.S. Trade Court.

To confuse the picture, even more, just four days ago the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that U.S. sugar beet farmers, apparently unfazed by the non-GMO trend, would likely grow a record crop this year. Estimates are that the beet harvest this year will yield 5.09 short tons, an all-time high.

Since 2008, sugar beet farmers have been exclusively using the so-called "Roundup Ready" seeds produced through genetic modification, also called genetic engineering. The US sugar beet industry coordinated an industry-wide conversion to genetically modified sugar beets, thus eliminating a non-GMO alternative for food manufacturers and consumers.

Sugar beets are bred to store massive amounts of sugar, approximately 20 percent of total weight, in a central root. They grow well in temperate climates and account for about half of sugar production.

The USDA says 95 percent of the US sugar beet crop was genetically modified in 2009. Around half of the sugar produced in the US comes from sugar beets. If a non-organic bag of sugar or a product containing conventional sugar as an ingredient does not specify "pure cane sugar," the sugar is likely a combination of cane sugar and GM sugar beets.

Nearly all the farmers who grow sugar beets in the United States decided to start growing genetically modified (so-called Roundup Ready) versions of their crop. The GMO beets, which can tolerate the weedkiller glyphosate, otherwise known as Roundup, made it easier for them to get rid of weeds.

"Glyphosate allowed us to streamline beet production," said Suzanne Rutherford, a California sugar beet grower. "It is hard to find labor to weed many acres, so with Roundup Ready, we don't have to do that anymore."

The farmers really didn't expect any problems. But you know the old saying, anything that can go wrong, will. What went wrong was the public started getting chary about GMO foods.

National Public Radio has reported candy companies are caving into consumer demands that the sugar they consume does not come from a GMO plant.


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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
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