Almost all sugar beets harvested in the U.S. are grown from genetically modified (GM) seed, and the beet industry had feared that the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard would be applied to beet sugar as a result. Arguing that beet sugar, like soybean oil and high-fructose corn syrup, is a refined ingredient that bears no detectable traces of genetically-modified material, USDA issued an exemption from the labeling standard. Labeling and standards will continue to be an issue to watch as much of the public still seems leery about GM ingredients. Whether this will affect what seems to be cane sugar’s more “natural” reputation among some consumers remains to be seen.
While there is no GM cane now being grown in the U.S., countries like Brazil and India have explored the technology. Brazil’s GM cane, CTC20BT, is already seeing some modest plantings and sugar from this cane is already approved for import in both Canada and the U.S. Japan, another key market, is carrying out its own evaluation; approval is likely there, as Japan has approved over 300 individual GM varieties, including three varieties of sugar beet. For comparison, one trade source list fewer than 70 approvals of GM varieties for China. Brazil is moving forward, and a second GM cane variety, CTC9001BT, was approved last month.
Import permissions are no small matter: Both Japan and South Korea briefly halted imports of U.S. and Canadian wheat last year on reports of the potential presence of GM wheat. Currently, no country has approved the commercial cultivation of any GM wheat variety.
In Europe, consumers are also distrustful of GM foods. Despite WTO challenges, several EU countries have established bans on various GM crops, so don’t expect to see GM beet cultivation there anytime soon.
Looking at India, the likely top producer of sugar in 2018/19, GM crops face far more public skepticism and outright opposition. Indian courts have yet to settle whether GM organisms can even be patented: Monsanto had one win before India’s supreme court this week, but the story is far from finished there.