WORLAND — Both corn and beets have been used to sweeten the billions of soft drinks Americans have consumed for decades. And both crops have shaped and been influenced by the politics, perceptions and changing technologies that have driven the sweetener market for decades.

One of the latest such developments has been genetically modified versions of both crops.

This summer in the Bighorn Basin, there was the conspicuous absence of a sight seen for many decades: migrant farm-worker families toiling with hoes in the beet fields, their camper-topped pickup trucks with Texas plates parked by the road.

With the soil saturated by heavy rains, you would expect to see, along with thriving crops, a riot of sprouting weeds attacked by squads of busy field workers. But — save for a few hardy, insurgent Canadian thistles — there are no weeds in the long, neat rows of leafy sugar beet plants. And so, no workers.

Why no weeds?  “Roundup Ready” beet seeds — genetically modified organisms (GMO), already tailored for corn, soybeans and cotton, came to the Bighorn Basin in 2009. Almost all area farmers have taken to planting beet seeds engineered to resist the mortal effects of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

The “Roundup Ready” beet seeds are planted, and when Roundup glysophate herbicide is applied to the field, it stops all other vegetation, so the emerging beet plants thrive without competition. Excessive weeds can sap more than half of a sugar beet crop’s value.

Beet farmers estimate that using the patented beet seeds and herbicide saves labor costs amounting to about $40 an acre. Still more can be saved by eliminating the old practice of spraying several other toxic pesticides during the growing season.

Early studies in Wyoming showed increased crop yields and sugar content from the new method — which would be an economic boost for farmers, whose grower contracts with the sugar-processing cooperatives specify more payment per-ton for beets with high sugar content.

But a 2006 scientific study warned of Roundup glyphosate causing increases of Fusarium disease and root rot in beets. It found that disease in test plantings were not caused by fungi, but as a result of the herbicide.

It concluded that “Rhizoctonia root rot could increase the soil pathogen population and affect other susceptible crops in rotation with GR (Glyphosate Resistant) sugar beet such as dry bean, soybean and corn….Lastly, glyphosate can reduce the number of potential antagonists to pathogens in field soil and alter the interaction among fungi on media and in soil.”

The paper, prepared by scientists from the USDA-ARS, Sugarbeet Research Unit at Fort Collins and University of Wyoming’s Department of Plant Sciences, was published in the Society of Chemical Industry’s Pest Management Science.

A federal appeals court ruling in May was meant to stop planting of the Roundup Ready beets without first conducting an environmental assessment. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture — using a special-permitting “partial deregulation” loophole — approved continued plantings in states like Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. Plantings were not approved in so-called “environmental hot spots” of California and western counties of Washington, where lack of frozen ground could result in un-dug beet roots later surging upward, becoming illicit “bolters,” producing and releasing GMO seeds into the wider environment.

“Because of this case, there will be public disclosure and debate on the harmful impacts of these pesticide-promoting crops, as well as legal protections for farmers threatened by contamination,” said George Kimbrell, lawyer from the Center for Food Safety, in a news release from the group May 20.

But a Monsanto spokesman said after the court ruling that it would have little effect, since USDA had already allowed so many farmers to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets.

The Center for Food Safety also launched a campaign urging consumers to write to M&M Mars and Hershey’s to lobby the candy companies to stick to their 2001 pledge not to use genetically modified beet sugar in their products.

The USDA permit, said Ric Rodriguez of Powell, a beet farmer on the board of the Western Sugar cooperative, imposes on farmers some “strict conditions” meant to prevent the spread of GMO seeds — including farmer-monitoring for bolters.

“With Roundup Ready seeds,” he explained, “you only have to spray twice, so now we don’t have to use that chemical cocktail five or six times over the summer to keep ahead of the weeds. When the weeds got out of control, then you had to bring in the hand labor.”

The corn connection

Soda pop bottled in Mexico, such as Coke and Jarritos, has long been popular with a niche of American consumers. Not for its cachet as an exotic import, but because Mexican pop is still sweetened with genuine sugar — not high-fructose corn syrup, as are most U.S. soft drinks. Fans claim real sugar made a difference in the taste. Helped by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994, Mexico is importing from the U.S. 80 percent of the yellow corn used in making its own higher-priced corn syrup, while the U.S. market is demanding less corn syrup. U.S.-subsidized corn imports are blamed for out-competing Mexico’s rural small farmers, forcing them off the land and into the cities.

“American corn subsidies, which led to the flooding of Mexican markets with American corn following the signing of NAFTA, is the primary factor responsible for the post-1994 internal displacement of rural farmers in Mexico,” according to Rick Relinger, writing last year in Prospect, the Journal of International Affairs at the University of California, San Diego.

But now, the volatile commodity cycle is coming full circle, as continuing federal subsidies of corn-derived ethanol for cleaner motor fuels has pushed up demand and price of all corn products, from tortillas to livestock feed to syrups for sweetening pop. Mexican consumers found themselves without either U.S. corn or local farmers to grow Mexican corn.

Ethanol now consumes 35 percent of U.S. corn production. This spring, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported on-farm corn stocks down 26 percent from a year earlier, prices shot up toward the 2008 crisis level, when many corn-based ethanol plants failed due to negative operating margins. Corn expense makes up as much as 70 percent of the cost of ethanol production.

Did higher corn prices factor into Pepsi’s decision to revive some sugar-sweetened drinks when it offered “Throwback” versions of Pepsi and Mountain Dew?

“No. Consumers told us that they enjoyed taking a nostalgic trip back in time with this timeless version of Pepsi and we listened,” said Pepsi spokesperson Esther-Mireya Tejeda. “Real sugar is used in our Throwback offering because we wanted to be true to the time the product represents. When the limited-time offerings of Pepsi Throwback found such great success, it was clear to us that there is a demand for a real sugar Pepsi product.”

The corn syrup obesity debate

Meanwhile, smaller, boutique soft-drink bottlers such as Jones Soda and Boylan Bottleworks had been promoting their use of real sugar, making inroads over the last five years into a market once dominated by the few large players. The sugar revival was catching on.

High-fructose corn syrup in U.S. soft drinks has been blamed by some for high obesity rates, notably in young people. Studies on such presumed cause and effect have proven inconclusive, according to the European Union Food Information Council.

However, sugar (sucrose) is much less chemically complex and less processed than corn syrup, whose sweetness comes from fructose. In what might prove to be a significant finding, an analysis last year published in the journal Current Hypertension Reports indicates that drinks sweetened with corn syrup are not as filling as sugared drinks and foods, resulting in excessive consumption.

“Fructose consumption and obesity are linked because fructose consumption does not cause an insulin response,” the journal reported, “This is important because, without an insulin response after consumption of a high-fructose food, there is no suppression of appetite which is normally induced by hyperinsulinemia after a meal. If there is no satiety or suppression of appetite occurring, then the person will continue eating or overeating as the case may be. This is linked with obesity because excess calories are converted and stored as fat, and when this process continues over a long period of time it results in obesity.”

In Europe, obesity rates are also on the rise, but consumers there do not ingest the same corn syrup as in the U.S., which is 55 percent fructose. The European Union’s glucose-fructose syrup (GFS) only runs 42 percent, and production of it as a sweetener is limited by law to about 5 percent of total sugar in the EU. Sucrose (table sugar), with equal parts glucose and fructose, is the most common sweetener in Europe.

Corn syrup is also used in the U.S. and elsewhere to sweeten baked goods, condiments and a wide range of processed foods.

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Patrick Dawson reported assignments for TIME for more than 25 years, ranging from New Mexico to Alaska, including covering the Unabomber arrest, Freemen standoff, Yellowstone issues, the Elizabeth Smart...

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