By Helen Vaskevitch
Many foods simply don’t grow in this climate. We will never be able to shop for locally grown coffee, for example. But fortunately for us in the Pacific Northwest, sugar can be and is grown in Oregon, in the form of sugar beets.
When most people think of sugar they think of the cane—a tropical tall grass that is cooked and refined to produce that sweet white powder. What most people don’t know is that more than half the sugar produced in the United States is refined from the root of the sugar beet, a bumpy white tuber that grows in temperate climates. Sugar from sugarcane and sugar beets is molecularly identical, generally only the finest pastry chefs will notice a slight difference in the caramelizing properties of the two.
Sugar beets may have been cooked down to produce a sweet syrup as far back as ancient Egypt, but the modern variety with its high sucrose content is the result of selective breeding starting in the late 1700s. The sugar beet industry took off for the first time during the Napoleonic wars in France, when a British blockade halted sugar imports from the Caribbean. The first sugar beet mill in the United States was opened in the late 1800s. The USDA reports that today sugar beets account for 55 percent of the sugar produced domestically.
Like table beets, sugar beets grow in temperate climates. Of the 11 American states that grow sugar beets, about 15 percent of planted acreage is in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The Willamette Valley, with its productive soils and abundant agricultural fields, produces all the sugar beet seed crop for the entire United States!
Although significant amounts of sugar beets are grown and processed in our own little corner of the Pacific Northwest, the local sugar beet industry doesn’t resemble the small farms and neighborhood farmer’s markets that come to mind when we think of locally grown crops. The American Sugar Beet Growers Association explains why: “Beet sugar production worldwide often is vertically integrated. Companies that process sugar from the beet root have considerable influence over all aspects of production from the area planted through the sale of the final product. The crop is of little value without a processor to extract the sugar, and once a sugar factory is constructed, a company must have a reliable supply of beets.” The vertically integrated nature of the sugar beet industry means that there are only a handful of large companies domestically that process beets into sugar. In the Northwest, that company is Amalgamated Sugar Company, owned by a grower-owned cooperative out of Oregon called the Snake River Sugar Company. Amalgamated has three processing plants in Idaho that process the sugar beets grown in Washington, Idaho and Oregon.
At the processing plants the beets are sliced thinly and cooked in hot water to extract the sugar. The thick syrup is then cooked down until crystals form. Next the whole batch is centrifuged to separate the syrup from the granules, which are then dried and sold as granulated sugar. Leftover pulp is sold as animal fodder. Amalgamated Sugar Co. sells white, brown, powdered and coarse granulated sugar, as well as liquid sucrose.
Most beet sugar is used to sweeten processed foods, but it is also possible to buy granulated beet sugar at retail grocery stores. In Idaho, Amalgamated sells its granulated sugar under the White Satin brand name. In Washington and Oregon beet sugar is sold under store brand names such as QFC, Albertsons and Safeway. Some sleuthing by consumer educators at the Innate Health Group in Seattle, WA discovered that the way to tell the source of store-brand sugar is to look at the lot number on the bag. Sugar produced at an Amalgamated processing plant, from beets likely to have been grown in Oregon, have a lot number made up of a two digit year number (e.g., 09, 10, 11), a three digit day number (001-365), and an X signifying that it was processed at an Amalgamated plant. For example, sugar produced on January 1, 2011 at Amalgamated would have the lot number 11001X. There are sometimes additional numbers after the X signifying information about the time and batch.
If you want to shop for Pacific Northwest grown sugar, look for the X! But of course, it isn’t as simple as that. Those who shop for local products usually have other criteria in mind as well, such as the organic certification, or at least some assurance of organic practices absent certification. Unfortunately, this criterion is not met by sugar produced from sugar beets.
In 2008, the sugar beet industry began transitioning from using conventional sugar beet seed to using genetically modified RoundUp Ready seed. RoundUp Ready seeds are genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide RoundUp, produced by Monsanto. As mentioned above, the sugar beet industry is vertically integrated—meaning that processors have incredible amounts of control over growing choices such as seed source. In 2010, 95 percent of the sugar beets planted in the U.S. were GM RoundUp Ready.*
Choosing between conventional or genetically modified seed isn’t as straightforward as selecting from a seed catalog. Legally, the USDA is required to do significant research determining the safety of new GM crops. The grower must then acquire a permit from the USDA to plant the new GM seeds. In the case of sugar beets in 2008, the permits were granted, but none of the usual precautions associated with new GM crops were taken. No environmental impact report was published, and neighboring farmers were not notified of the planting. In 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White ruled planting of GM sugar beets unlawful and ordered that no more be planted until an Environmental Impact Report was produced by the USDA.
Despite Judge White’s ruling in 2010, concerns about sugar supply in 2011 caused the USDA to partially deregulate GM sugar beets for this year’s crop. Partial deregulating allows planting of GM crops, with precautions taken to prevent cross-pollination of neighboring fields.
Regardless of any court ruling or USDA regulations, the damage may have already been done. In the Willamette Valley, known for its organic seed production, cross-pollination is on every farmer’s mind. Frank Morton, a seed grower in Philomath, OR, joined the lawsuit against the USDA. He writes that “this valley isn’t big enough to provide certainty of genetic isolation between GE sugar beets and conventional beets and Swiss chard. Such certainty would require more than six miles of isolation distance between transgenic and conventional beets, according to the sugar beet industry’s own research… this would push other producers out of the valley entirely.” The USDA’s partial deregulation requires four miles of distance between GM-planted and conventionally planted fields.
Whether or not you want to dicker over the science of four miles versus six, the fact remains that three years of planting passed in the Willamette Valley before neighboring farms ever knew of the presence of genetically modified sugar beets within cross-pollination range.
Because sugar produced from conventional and genetically modified beets is molecularly identical, companies are not required to label whether the plant source is genetically modified or not. This means that today, if you buy sugar from sugar beets, it’s impossible to guarantee it wasn’t made from GMO RoundUp Ready beets, unless the product is certified organic or certified non-GMO.
However, due to the vertical integration of the sugar beet industry and its broad acceptance of GMO sugar beets, most (if not all) of the sugar from sugar beets on store shelves has not been certified organic or non-GMO.
For the environmentally conscious consumer, the terms “local” and “organic” are never straightforward, and in this regard sugar is no exception. When buying sugar in Oregon, shoppers are faced with the decision: buy local, from sugar grown in the Northwest and processed in Idaho, or buy organic, from companies like Wholesome Sweeteners who source their Fair Trade sugar from sugarcane farms in Paraguay.
For those who want it all, who want to sweeten their food with something both local and organic, I’d say go with locally produced honey. The flavor may differ from sugar, its liquid properties may require some adjustment to recipes, but it is often produced on a small scale and may even fortify you against seasonal allergies!
Helen Vaskevitch lives in a well-decorated closet in Ashland, Ore. where she reads lots of good books and is training to be a group facilitator.