Wyo sugar industry continues tackling challenges facing the industryWritten by Saige Albert
Wyoming sugarbeet growers have faced challenges for a number of years, and the challenges only continue to mount .
“One of the biggest issues we are dealing with now is genetically modified organisms (GMOs),” says Richard McKamey, CEO of Wyoming Sugar Company, “but sugar has always dealt with a lot of issues.”
From the economics of the industry to a war on the product itself, McKamey and Rebecca Larson, a research agronomist with Western Sugar, note that GMOs and economics are at the top of the list of challenges, along with public perception.
Genetic modification and the issues with public perception of GMOs have been important to improving the productivity of sugarbeet growers.
“The GMO issue is challenging the viability of our growers in terms of cost,” McKamey says. “Activists are targeting GMOs in a non-science-based way.”
McKamey also notes that Wyoming’s sugar industry is taking a proactive approach to the issue, going so far as to visit with the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee on the issue.
To combat incorrect information related to GMOs, Larson says, “We’ve become a lot more vocal as far as our education efforts. We are providing tools for growers to access to help them speak about GMOs, and we are encouraging our growers to tell their personal stories.”
With sugar imports and relatively low prices, profitability in the sugar industry is always a concern.
“Sugar prices have been on the decline the last couple of years,” Larson mentions, “so we employ technologies that are safer on the farm and also improve yields and bottom line profitability.”
Though prices have dipped slightly in the last year, she sees profitability for sugar producers into the future.
Larson notes that sugarbeet producers are more poised toward profitability because sugar from beets provides 40 percent more sugar per acre than is produced from cane, which gives it an edge.
War on sugar
Also affecting profitability of producers is a growing campaign against sugar by many groups.
“Sugar itself is being demonized and blamed for health problems in the U.S.,” Larson explains.
However, she notes that sugar has 30 to 50 percent fewer calories than other natural sweeteners, like honey and agave nectar, with only 15 calories per teaspoon.
“Compared to artificial sweeteners, sugar comes straight from the plant instead of being chemically modified,” Larson explains. “Other sweeteners are chemically modified, like Stevia, or just made in a lab.”
Larson adds, “At only 15 calories per teaspoon, we can feel free to include sugar as a tasty treat in our overall balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.”
Another concern for sugarbeet producers has been recent concern over use of glyphosate and other chemicals used in the industry.
“There is a lot of controversy over use of chemicals,” Larson explains. “Glyphosate is one of those, and there are a lot of misconceptions about glyphosate.”
Recently, the International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization, reclassified glyphosate as a Category 2B chemical. The designation describes the category as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
“However, that is the same category as caffeine and pickled vegetables,” Larson explains. “ A lot of people think that the new designation means glyphosate is extremely toxic and cancer-causing, but that isn’t true. It is a safe product and magnitudes better than other weed control alternatives. Furthermore, many professional scientific groups have challenged IARC’s conclusion as it opposes the general scientific consensus and used some cherry-picked data to support its conclusions.”
Despite the continued challenges in the public and economic arenas, so far for 2015, McKamey notes that the sugarbeet crop appears to be in good shape.
“We had some low temperatures at the beginning of May, but we will see how that impacts the crop,” he comments. “We are off to an early start and hopefully we don’t see any damage from that.”
Water levels for irrigation look sufficient to this point in the year, he adds, noting that farmers are largely optimistic for the coming year.
McKamey adds, “We are looking forward brightly to another year, as farmers always do. We get to do our job again and do it better this time, so we are excited about this year.”