FARGO - The region’s beet farmers don’t want to hear it, but leaders of co-ops are spending time preparing them to imagine a world without Roundup Ready sugar beets, even while fighting to keep the technology.

Kurt Wickstrom, president and CEO of Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, addressing the co-op’s 43rd annual meeting Tuesday in Fargo, said the company is planning to combat food safety perceptions.

About 55 percent of U.S. sugar is produced by sugar beets, which are nearly 99 percent Roundup Ready, a GMO trait. Scientific studies show beet sugar chemically is no different than sugarcane sugar, which is not GMO. The biotech issue has grown in importance since Hershey’s, a maker of candy, announced it would no longer use GMO sugar in some of its biggest brands.

“We are taking it seriously,” Wickstrom said of GMO market criticisms. Farmers don’t want to go back to the “old technology,” of conventional varieties, which would take time to develop.

“We’re going to provide our food company partners some data that shows that Roundup Ready sugar production is a much more sustainable way to produce sugar” than with conventional beets or cane, Wickstrom said.

He said the co-op is also involving some of its farm wives as spokespeople in a national program to help turn the tide of public opinion.

“The threat is real, we don’t know how big it is,” Wickstrom said of the anti-GMO effect. He said other options would have to be ready in three to five years, depending on whether the situation worsens or if they put alternative strategies in place. He acknowledged that sweetener users have struggled legally to allow more foreign sugar cane into the country.

“I would hope that the food companies aren’t using this as a leverage tactic to try to disrupt a decent policy we have in the current farm bill,” Wickstrom said. He said there appears some customers don’t want to listen to the science and just want sugar to be nonGMO.

Sugar limits

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Regarding another market concern, Courtney Gaine, vice president of scientific affairs for The Sugar Association in Washington, D.C., described world and national sugar labeling and sugar dietary guidelines.

“There is an increasing, rapid trend toward restriction” of sugar in food guidelines, Gaine said. “That is about 10 percent of added sugars, which is currently being proposed in the U.S. But it has been put forward by the World Health Organization.”

In the United Kingdom, the guideline is recommended for 5 percent added sugar.

U.S. guidelines come out every five years, and the 2015 dietary guidelines are coming out in a matter of days, Gaine said.

That’s a final policy document from the secretaries of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The association expects that in early 2016 the Food and Drug Administration will issue a final rule on labeling changes. A declaration of added sugar and a daily value of 10 percent of calories would be included in the labeling guidelines.

In the U.S., about 13 percent of calories currently are ingested from added sugars.

If the U.S. limits that to 10 percent, it would have the most immediate impact on federal feeding programs such as Women, Infants and Children and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and military feeding and school lunch.

If the general population were to adhere to the same guideline, the 3 percent decline of sugar and other sweeteners (high-fructose corn sweeteners, agave, honey, maple syrup) it would be a 2 percent reduction in sugar alone, Gaine said.

That’s an equivalent of about 2 million tons of sugar.

2015 pay, yields

In October meetings, Minn-Dak shareholders said their projected price for 2015 crop beets was $46.50 per ton.

The co-op is holding back $3 of that back as a “contingency” and plans to request an additional $1 per ton in “retains” from April or July payments in 2016 - a kind of internal loan to reduce co-op borrowing.

Last year, the initial projection was $39.86 per ton and the final payment ended up at $42.78 per ton, but with lower yield. Wickstrom said he doesn’t see as much upside potential for payment improvement as he did last year.

Shareholders brought in 26.5 tons per acre yield - the third largest.

Strong yields were especially welcome, since during the final eight weeks of the growing season the southern Red River Valley region didn’t get any meaningful precipitation.

This year’s gross revenue per acre will be about $1,230, compared with $950 an acre on the 2014 crop based on initial projections. The co-op’s beet piles have seen more storability concerns because of dehydration and warmer-than-normal temperatures into December.

This year’s slice season is expected to last into mid-May.

“We’re in a little bit better position than a lot of co-ops because more than half of our storage is ventilated,” meaning it is provided with tubes that move air into the bottoms of piles, he said. The company has been blending ventilated and nonventilated beets together since October.

Wickstrom said the company board of directors recently voted to approve a total of $7 million in beet pile ventilation investments in the next two years.

“Next year over two thirds of our crop will be ventilated and the year after that we’ll be at 75 percent. It helps remove risk if we continue to have these long, open falls,” Wickstrom said.

Some members think weather trends are cyclical, but says it’s better to be safe than sorry.