Sugar companies to launch GMO education campaign

Two of the nation’s sugar companies will launch a $4 million online campaign this fall aimed at educating consumers about GMO crops and changing their perceptions of the technology.

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Genetically modified crops such as sugar beets and corn have been a godsend to the farmers who grow them, an Idaho farmer and biotechnology expert told members of the Western Association of State Departments of Agriculture July 27.

But, he added, the majority of consumers don’t understand the science behind genetically engineered crops and farmers who use the technology are losing the online debate about “GMOs,” as the crops are commonly called.

To try to change consumers’ understanding and perception of GMO crops, the nation’s sugar beet industry is preparing a $4 million online campaign that will launch this fall.

“We are losing the online debate,” Idaho sugar beet farmer Duane Grant told WASDA members. “We can’t just sit back and let this evolve independently. We have to engage.”

The campaign, “A Fresh Look,” is primarily being financed by Amalgamated Sugar Co. and Western Sugar Co. and will target three large urban areas.

If successful — it will be evaluated after nine months — it will be expanded into a $30 million national campaign, said Grant, chairman of the Snake River Sugar Cooperative’s board of directors.

Roundup Ready sugar beets, which are genetically engineered to withstand applications of the glyphosate herbicide, enjoy 100 percent adoption among Amalgamated growers and save them about $22 million per year, he said.

Because the GMO beets allow growers to use fewer herbicides, the plants are disturbed less and they face much less competition from weed pressure, which has translated into higher yields, Grant said.

Since GMO corn was introduced in the 1990s, he said, U.S. corn acres have increased from just under 60 million to 90 million, while acres of wheat, which is not genetically modified, have dropped from about 60 million to 45 million in 2017, which is the lowest acreage since records began in 1919.

The wheat “industry is struggling because returns don’t match the returns in crops grown with biotechnology,” Grant said

“The value of that technology to a farmer is intuitive,” he said.

But, he added, it’s not intuitive to many consumers and that’s the reason for the “A Fresh Look” campaign, which will target moms who are deemed to be decision makers and engage them online.

“We are going to talk to them in their language,” Grant said. “All they care about is, is this good for the planet and will it be good for my kids.”

The campaign will introduce those consumers to some of the 25 environmental benefits of GMO crops that the sugar beet industry documented and submitted to the National Academy of Sciences in 2015, he said.

The use of fewer pesticides and herbicides in GMO crops will be highlighted, Grant said. “We’re going to own that one.”

Doug Jones, executive director of Growers for Biotechnology, which promotes the acceptance of agricultural biotechnology, applauded the campaign.

“The public’s understanding of biotechnology is very low and often misguided,” he said. The campaign won’t change everyone’s mind, but “if they can do something to educate the public, I’m all for it.”

By Sean Ellis

Capital Press