By Santiago Navarro
Monsanto Molecular Weed Control Lead
Sugar, whether naturally in food or added to it, can be found in many food products. In 2015, the global sugar and sweetener market totaled roughly $106 billion, despite the political controversy over sugar that’s lasted more than 200 years.
Sugar first sparked discourse with the British blockades on sugarcane that prompted the search for alternatives, leading Napoleon to promote the study and cultivation of sugar beets during the Napoleonic Wars in the 1800s. Currently, about 20 percent of the world’s sugar production comes from sugar beets. But now a new controversy over sugar production is being played out by the demonization of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because sugar beets have been genetically modified to tolerate herbicides using a process known as biotechnology.
In the United States, genetically modified sugar beets have been developed to resist glyphosate, a herbicide originally developed by Monsanto, which is the active ingredient in Roundup. In modifying the sugar beet, scientists introduced a single gene into the plant, which produces the enzyme that makes it resistant to glyphosate. The addition of this single gene is the center of the argument that it involves an “unnatural” introduction of a trait. However, the enzyme in question has been part of animal diets for centuries.
Saccharum, the generic Latin name for sugarcane, is derived from the Greek word sakcharon, which means sugar. Currently cultivated sugarcane plants are hybrids derived mainly from crossings between two species, S. officinarum and S. spontaneum. One species contributes the accumulation of sugar in the stalks, while the other contributes to vigor and resistance to environmental stresses. The resulting hybrid contains two copies of the genome of S. officinarum and one copy from S. spontaneum.
In addition to this uneven contribution of thousands of genes between the two species, between 5 and 17 percent of the genome has been recombined to form new chimeric chromosomes. Attempts to improve sugarcane haven’t stopped there. Scientists have experimented with crosses between sugarcane and corn, sorghum, bamboo and several other species to introduce desired traits.
Genetically-modified beets allow farmers to more efficiently produce sugar in temperate zones, reducing erosion using no-till farming, reducing herbicide use, and reducing the carbon footprint compared to varieties that are not genetically modified. Genetically-modified beets are more environmentally-friendly than sugarcane, because sugarcane production requires that a large percentage of cultivated areas rely on burning the crops before harvest, which causes the release of CO2.
Therefore, the question of what is more genetically modified is more deeply-rooted in political and social issues, rather than environmental or safety concerns.