The cost of Sugar: Not so sweet.

Most people know that my hometown got hit with an ice storm that basically shut the entire city down for the better part of a week. A slippery trip to the closest open grocer revealed the expected empty aisles where perishables once sat. What I didn’t expect was for them to be out of sugar. Even today, when most stores are returning to normal, the sugar aisles were still fairly bare.

(image via arrrtstar tumblr)

Uh oh. I thought I’d have time to stock up before the sugar beet fiasco had things hitting the fan.

Wait. What? “The sugar beet fiasco”?

Ok, I know that sounds like the name of some new hipster band, but it’s actually a serious thing, and highlights just one of the problems with relying on genetically modified crops.

Just to give a quick bit of background, a standard definition of GMO is an organism who’s genetic material has been changed in a way that does not occur under natural conditions through cross-breeding or natural recombination.
Now, on the surface, this doesn’t sound like terribly much to worry about, right? Especially in the face of the massive media campaign funded by Monsanto-the one that promises to feed a hungry world. However, there are many legitimate concerns. If you’ve got a little spare time, check out the movie The Future of Food for a really good overview of the main problems. In short: many of these crops are engineered using bacteria such as e-coli (no, I’m not kidding) to introduce pesticide resistant genes so that farmers can drench their fields in chemicals without killing the crop. Those chemicals have a tendency to do nasty things to the environment and their safety in the food supply is suspect, to say the least.

The other, more relevant problem revolves around the seeds and pollen that come from GMO crops. Non-GMO varieties can easily be infected with the relatively untested gmo genes, creating all sorts of havoc. There has also been a good bit of concerned talk over what might happen as the variety of plant species diminishes, especially in a time when seed saving and cleaning is becoming an endangered business -what if some sort of sickness were to hit our homogenous crops, wiping them out?

Yikes! but what does all this have to do with the price of sugar?
Well, I’m glad you asked.

You see, back in roughly 2007/8, several of the main food producing corporations decided that public outcry over genetically modified foods had subsided enough that they could get away with using genetically modified sugar in their products. It fit nicely in with the fact that many people were finally speaking out against HFCS, and because there are no labeling requirements for GMO’s, these crops could be silently introduced. The prevailing thought was that since sugar is a very processed food, that surely none of the modified genes would be left to do any harm.
But wait, why choose GMO seeds over regular ones? Well, sugar beets grow very slowly, so weeds and grasses have ample opportunity to take over and hog all the sun and water. So, the sugar beet gene was modified like many other plants’ genes have been to resist the popular herbicide RoundUp. This enables sugar beet farmers to drench their fields in Monsanto’s herbicide and not worry about their crop dying. Since sugar beets are a fairly labor intensive crop, it’s not too hard to see why a struggling farmer might choose to go this route. In fact, in the United States, approximately 95% of sugar beet farms are currently planted with this genetically modified variant. ( Incidentally, this means that the vast majority of sweetened products on your store’s shelves contain sweetener made from either genetically modified corn or sugar beets-and you’ll never know from reading the label.)

But back to the story… Earlier this fall, federal courts determined that Monsanto and the USDA had not adequately proven their crop’s safety and that no more of the GMO seeds were to be planted. However, since the USDA issued permits to plant the crops anyway the courts handed down a second ruling, ordering the crops destroyed. Since those crops were supposed to be producing seeds for the next few years of crops, and there aren’t enough conventional seeds left to plant the old crops, experts are predicting as much as a 40% decline in production over the next few years.


Now in reality, the empty shelves in my store probably didn’t have a darn thing to do with all this mess, but a morning of bitter coffee was a sobering reminder of what could possibly be coming without diversification and with too heavy a reliance on corporate produced seed.



7 thoughts on “The cost of Sugar: Not so sweet.

  1. Setting aside for the GMO issues (which personally I’m not as against, but that’s not what this reply is about), there is an ongoing sugar supply shortfall in the US for a variety of reasons (how do I know? I invest in a Canadian sugar producer which has been able to profitably sell sugar to the US despite the tariffs and countervailing protectionist duties due to the sugar shortage).

    1) HFCS. In the US, HFCS has been relied on for so long and by so many people (particularily in industry) that the outcry against them has caused what will probably be a temporary supply problem. More people are shifting away from HFCS and to cane sugar (or sugar from sugar beets) than there are suppliers of those types of sugar.

    2) Ethanol. So much corn production is being shifted to Ethanol (in part to compensate for the loss of some HFCS markets), that sugar is caught up in the mix as well. This relates to 1), but the secondary supply problem this causes is that ethanol production uses industrialized sugar in some (not all) processes. If they can’t source HFCS, that puts demand on other sugar producers.

    3) Worldwide demand. Some of the worlds largest cane sugar producers have had a run of bad luck, ruining crops and causing exporters to temporarily become importers (India being a prime example).

    4) Lack of alternatives. In the US, HFCS was so dominant for so long (especially in the soft drink industry) that cane sugar refiners simply withered away and disappeared. This relates to 2), in that now that people want alternatives, they aren’t there, but aside from that, the alternatives are expensive to start up and require a big lead time when it comes to crops (as sugar beets and sugar cane aren’t crops you can just one year decide to plant to meet demand, you need a pipeline and demand).

    In Canada, the sugar producer I invest in uses GMO Sugar Beets in one of their factories, however the company clearly identifies these sources of sugar by the bar code on the product. If it’s an A it’s from the Taber, Alberta Sugar Beet facility, if it’s a B, it’s from the Vancouver cane refinery. Personally, I’m not really against GMO per se, but I do like the fact they differentiate the product so people can decide for themselves.

    Another thing aside from GMO…most white sugar not produced by sugar beets is produced using animal bone char. A lot of people aren’t aware of this.

  2. Wow. Fascinating – I didn’t know about this at all. (I am trying to cut expenses AND sugar at the same time, so maybe this will inadvertently help me along?)

    I had to snort when I got to the end of the post & there was a Google ad for High Fructose Corn Syrup.

  3. Thank you Lori! I already know a lot about these issues but there is always more to learn. I have been trying to learn about foraging so if a total crisis happens I can eat my yard or local park.

  4. Pingback: Are you ready for the food bubble? « lorigami

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