For years, candy makers and other industrial food manufacturers refused to use genetically modified sugar, fearing a consumer backlash.

Hard candy

Photo: iStockphoto

As a result, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beet — designed to withstand heavy application of Roundup, Monsanto’s herbicide — has been dead in the water. (Sugar beets, grown in the Midwest and Northwest, account for half of U.S. sugar production; cane, grown mainly in Florida, provides the rest.)

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But as of last fall, all of that changed. Big Food — which has already given a bear hug to another genetically modified sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup — changed its tune. A Kellogg spokesperson told the NYT that the company “would not have any issues” with GM sugar in the U.S., because “most consumers are not concerned about biotech.”

And now, the powerful sugar industry is urging beet growers to plant the Monsanto product. Does that mean Monsanto — which already essentially controls production of our two biggest crops, corn and soy — will add sugar beets to its trophy case of monopolies?

Maybe not. A scrappy coalition of seed-diversity activists, organic seed providers, and green groups are suing the USDA, urging it to revoke the “unregulated” status it awarded Monsanto’s latest strain of GM beets.

The coalition’s logic is compelling. According to their press release, the sugar beet industry grows its seed stock mainly in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, “also an important seed growing area for crops closely related to sugar beets, such as organic chard and table beets.”

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And beets are wind-pollinated, thus prone to cross-pollinate. This raises the thorny issue of genetic contamination — Monsanto’s patent-protected genes weaseling into conventional plants, including ones producing seeds for organic beets and chard.

Genetic contamination not only ruins efforts to preserve old seed lines and threatens the organic status of producers; it also opens non-GM growers to claims of patent infringement from Monsanto’s notorious team of seedy rent-a-cops and lawyers (PDF). In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that farmers caught using seeds containing patented genes owe the patent-holder a technology fee — even if the genes ended up in their seed through cross-pollination.

Moreover, the coalition argues that the industry line about how GM crops reduce chemical use is nonsense. They cite figures (PDF) showing that “GE crops increased herbicide use in the U.S. by 122 million pounds — a 15-fold increase — between 1994 (when GE herbicide-tolerant crops were introduced) to 2004.”

As I wrote last week, Monsanto rose to dominance on a wave of lawsuits against farmers. It would be lovely if this litigious giant saw the prospect for yet another crop monopoly crumble because of a successful lawsuit.