April 19, 2016 / GE Avoidance, GE Contamination, GMSugarbeet (Beta vulgaris)
Sugarbeets engineered to resist glyphosate were first deregulated in the U.S. in 1998. Market hesitancy, however, stalled the adoption by commercial producers until nearly a decade later.
In the U.S., most of the sugarbeet seed production is controlled by a handful of agribusiness corporations and is focused in and around Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Independent seed growers in this region face significant challenges in maintaining the purity of organic seed as they are likely to be in close proximity to by GE producers.
Cultivated Beta vulgaris also includes table beets (aka garden beets or beetroot) and Swiss chard, putting these crops at risk of contamination from GE sugarbeets.
As with all wind-pollinated crops, contamination potential via pollen transfer is high. Beet pollen is light and can travel up to 5 miles or more in ideal conditions . There are standard distance isolations for the sugarbeet industry, but they are voluntary in practice. Sugarbeet stock seed isolation is set just under 1 mile. Between plantings of sugarbeet and table beets, there is an isolation recommendation of 1.86 miles; roughly 1.5 miles is recommended for Swiss chard.
Major GE sugarbeet seed producers raised these standards to 3 miles and 5 miles, respectively.
However, these isolation distances are conservative compared to recommendations by organic seed experts familiar with purity concerns. Beets produce copious amounts of pollen, which can traverse several miles in the wind. A 1930s study by a USDA researcher concluded that the pollen could actually travel between 12 and 20 miles under optimum conditions. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation advises for a 6 mile isolation between GE and non-GE plantings . Author of The Organic Seed Grower, Dr. John Navazio, recommends 10 miles.
As a biennial, sugarbeets need to undergo vernalization, either by surviving the winter in the field or a in storage facility, in order to produce offspring. Often sugarbeet seed production forces this vernalization via a late summer planting, with anticipated seed set the following summer.
In commercial sugarbeet root production, plants are harvested prior to flower for processing but can still act as a potential source of genetic drift. This is because early bolting and seed production can occur if plants are stressed during this first year of production.
Seed bolters, less common in sugarbeets than other members of B. vulgaris, can act as an immediate source of genetic drift through viable GE pollen, or as a later source of genetic material in the form of seed. Scouting and rouging for bolters should be standard practice by GE sugarbeet seed growers.
Best Management for Avoiding GE Contamination within the Beet Family…
Identify potential points of contamination.For beet family (B. vulgaris) seed production, plant clean seed in fields at least 6 miles from GE sugarbeets. 10 miles is recommended if possible.
Control volunteers/bolters in and around seed fields.
Avoid mixing during harvest, cleaning, storage, transport, sales.
Use dedicated equipment and facilities if possible.
Otherwise, clean between use.