Ann Arbor Sugar Beet Project: planting non-GMO sugar

Earlier this week I detailed my conversation with Brian Steinberg, owner of Inchworm Microgreens. Today I address another project of Steinberg’s - the Ann Arbor Sugar Beet Project, which aims to start a non-GMO sugar beet groundswell in Southeast Michigan. Before hearing from Steinberg, let us talk about Frank Morton, an organic seed farmer in Oregon. Morton’s farm, Wild Garden Seed, has been growing “open pollinated, untreated, germ and vigor tested seeds … organically certified since 1987.” Willamette Valley supplies the majority of U.S. sugar beet seeds and the majority of those are now “Roundup Ready” sugar beets. Morton fears the pollen from the genetically modified crops. He is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in N. California last year against Monsanto to stop sales of GMO sugar beets.

The lawsuit states, “wind-blown pollen from GE [Genetically Engineered] sugar beets will contaminate conventional sugar beets and other closely related crops, such as chard and table beets. Such biological contamination is costly to detect and detrimental to farmers and consumers of conventional and organic varieties.” Due to open pollination, plaintiffs fear for the integrity of their own seeds, because no one can control the wind blowing GMO pollen onto the non-GMO flowers. Once GMO pollen is introduced to non-GMO flowers the seeds from that union have GMO traits.

Michigan has been growing Roundup Ready sugar beets since 2008. ABC News reported on June 21, the U.S. Supreme Court “reversed a federal appeals court ruling that had prohibited Monsanto Co. from selling alfalfa seeds because they are resistant to the popular weed killer Roundup… The U.S. Agriculture Department must now decide whether to allow the genetically modified seeds to be planted.” Legal pundits feel the Supreme Court ruling may affect what the Northern California District Court decides regarding genetically modified sugar beets.

The District Court decision in California will certainly affect our Michigan farmers. As Michigan Farm News reported last October, “sugar beets supply more than half the nation’s sugar," 95 percent of those beets are Roundup Ready. Since Michigan began planting Roundup Ready sugar beets per acre yield has increased from an average of 21.6 tons to nearly 26 tons and has reduced tillage, which, in turn lowers erosion and fuel costs. The article goes on the posit that without biotech sugar beets agriculture will be unable to produce enough food to supply the forecasted 50 percent to 70 percent increase in global demand for food by 2050.

One way to increase the amount of food available for consumption is to grow it ourselves, which is what the Ann Arbor Sugar Beet Project is all about. Brian Steinberg is selling organic sugar beet seeds to gardeners to grow the large beets. When the beets are harvested there will be a large sugar-making party to celebrate the event.

I had a chance to ask Steinberg questions recently about his project, and I will let his cheerful presentation speak for itself. My only comment would be that his 40 tons an acre seems to be very optimistic.

What is a sugar beet?

Why made you excited about this idea?

Isn’t making sugar complicated?

Could you explain more of the process?

What can the backyard gardener do?

When will we know if this works?

As Steinberg says on his blog: "There will be a fund raiser dinner on July 17th hosted by Tammy Coxen of TT Super Club to support the Ann Arbor Sugar Beet Project. The money will go towards getting a centrifuge to process brown sugar into white. The cost is a minimum donation of $55 per person. Email me at chefbrian1@yahoo.com or Tammy at ttsupperclub@gmail.com." You can also talk to Steinberg at his booth at the Westside Farmers Market.

Here is the link to the article