Louisiana sugar doing well, thanks in part to consumers’ distaste for GMO sugar beets

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It’s been a while since Louisiana cane farmer Thomas Viator felt this good about his crop and the prospects of fetching a good price when the sugar is harvested at the end of this year.

A mild winter and rain that has tapered down to just enough has his cane looking good. Even better, though, is a consumer market that’s veering from ingesting genetically modified foods.

And in this case, that means sugar cane’s main rival — northern-grown, genetically modified sugar beets —is falling out of favor with consumers.

“There is a demand in the market for sugar that is produced from non-GMO (genetically modified organism) sources,” said Jim Simon, president of the Thibodaux-based American Sugar Cane League.

“It is providing some benefit for us,” Simon said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be long term.”

Grown in Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado and other far-north states, sugar beets are grown from seeds implanted with a gene that makes it resistant to the weed killer glyphosate, commercially marketed as RoundUp. Although the beet’s sugar is deemed safe by experts, there’s been a consumer shift away from GMO foods.

Food companies have reacted. In 2015 Hershey Co., one of the biggest buyers of U.S. sugar, stopped purchasing sugarproduced from the beet.

Simon said there were efforts tried years ago to grow sugar beets in Louisiana, but the climate here is too harsh.

“We’ve got too many diseases and fungi in the soil, and the summers are too wet to grow beets,” he said. “They tested some (beets) and tried some, but never any commercial production.”

Although the current consumer reaction against genetically modified beets is increasing demand somewhat for sugar extracted from cane, Simon said, it’s really the total supply of sugar that affects the price.

Anticipating a 2016-17 supply that will fall from last year’s levels, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has raised the limit on the amount of sugar Mexico this year can sell to the U.S. According to a mid-May USDA report, in 2016-17, the U.S. will import 1.67 million tons of sugar from Mexico, a 35.4 percent increase over the 2015-16 season.

“That wasn’t unexpected,” Simon said. “It’s not something we would have preferred. But in fairness to USDA, they are charged with making sure there’s a stable supply” of raw sugar.

USDA forecasters in the May 16 report said overall U.S. cane production would fall off almost 7 percent this year, with Florida farmers producing 10 percent less. Hawaii farmers too are producing fewer cane stalks this year, and next year they will exit the business altogether when that state’s lone sugar mill ceases operations.

Bucking the trend, Louisiana farmers should produce almost 5 percent more this year than last, the report states.

American Sugar League agronomist Herman Waguespack said in a report that the ruts in rain-saturated fields caused by equipment rolling through last winter didn’t cause the damage to cane roots that was feared.

“We were really concerned last year, with the harvest, because it was so wet,” Simon said.

But the winter was mild, even warm. “And cane likes warmer weather,” Simon said.

Viator, the farmer, said last week that he and his crews were busy, but not too busy to have one of the young hands check the spot price for sugar on a smart phone.

Last week the market was paying around 26 to 27 cents for a pound of raw sugar. In January the price was 2 to 3 cents less.

“Hopefully it stays up come harvest time,” Viator said.

“The crop is pretty right now,” said Viator, who with his family farms cane on 5,800 acres in Iberia, Lafayette, St. Martin and Vermilion parishes. “Mother Nature is with us.”

That wasn’t the case last year, when a long summer drought was followed by unrelenting rain that made the harvest miserable and expensive. Though the 2015-16 season was hard, the yields and prices were decent.

LSU AgCenter economist Kevin Guidry said the increase in Mexican sugar imports this year likely will keep the price at 26 to 27 cents. Guidry also said the USDA could adjust the import quota up or down depending on how crops look later this year.

“The weather over the next several months is going to be critical,” he said.

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