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Round 2 for Biotech Beets: OCA's Action Covered in the New York Times

Article excerpt:

...Seven years ago, beet breeders were on the verge of introducing Roundup-resistant seeds. But they had to pull back after sugar-using food companies like Hershey and Mars, fearing consumer resistance, balked at the idea of biotech beets. Now, though, sensing that those concerns have subsided, many processors have cleared their growers to plant the Roundup-resistant beets next spring.

It would be the first new type of genetically engineered food crop widely grown since the 1990s, when biotech soybeans, corn and a few other crops entered the market.

"Basically, we have not run into resistance," said David Berg, president of American Crystal Sugar, the nation's largest sugar beet processor. "We really think that consumer attitudes have come to accept food from biotechnology."

A Kellogg spokeswoman, Kris Charles, said her company "would not have any issues" buying such sugar for products sold in the United States, where she said "most consumers are not concerned about biotech."

If some other big food companies are now open to genetically modified sugar, though, they are not talking about it. Both Hershey and Mars declined to comment. "There's just nothing we have to say on the topic," a Mars spokeswoman said.

Many sugar refiners and seed developers also refused to comment, hewing to an industrywide plan to coordinate the introduction of the genetically engineered beets and carefully control what is said about them.

When it comes to genetically modified crops, there is a reason to keep one's corporate head low - to avoid protests. Some opponents of biotechnology are only now getting wind that the sugar beets have been resurrected.

"When I first saw this I said, 'No, it can't be,'" said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. "I thought we had already dealt with this."

His organization issued a call to arms and thousands of identical e-mail messages were sent to Mr. Berg at American Crystal Sugar warning that "profit margins of your company and its supporting farmers" would be hurt by consumer resistance.

Mr. Berg said he received 681 messages in a 24-hour period before having the e-mail blocked. He said he still believed that most consumers would accept biotech crops. Mr. Cummins, however, said he would next try to persuade consumers to pressure food companies to boycott the sugar. "I don't think companies like Hershey are going to want any more hassles than they already have," he said, referring to recent earnings pressure and management turmoil at the chocolate company. 

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