USDA deregulates herbicide resistant energy beet, sugar beet

By Holly Jessen | July 31, 2012

A recent decision by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service means Roundup Ready sugar beets and energy beets can now be sold commercially—and that’s exciting news for potential biofuels producers. “We’re very delighted that we have this Roundup Ready beet,” said Roger Ford, CEO of Patriot Bioenergy Corp., a company working to build three energy beet-to-ethanol production plants in Kentucky. “The weed control is a big issue so that’s going to help us quite a bit on getting that solved.”

In response to a petition from Monsanto Co. and German company KWS, on July 19 APHIS announced a determination of nonregulated status and the availability of a record of decision. The sugar beets and energy beets are genetically engineered with resistance to the herbicide glyphosate, which is known commercially as Roundup, and are commonly referred to as event H7-1 or Roundup Ready beets.

KWS, which owns U.S.-based Betaseed Inc., worked with Monsanto on developing the genetically engineered plants, said Steve Libsack, business development director for Betaseed. The two companies agreed to make it available to any breeding company due to the cost of getting it deregulated and the need to have it widely available to growers.

In anticipation of deregulation, Betaseed grew a seed crop, which will be harvested this fall. The company will then begin growing trial crops of Roundup Ready sugar beets and energy beets. “We will be testing hybrids in same markets that we’ve already been testing conventional energy beet hybrids for the last several years but we will just make a conversion now to test the Roundup Ready hybrids,” he said.

Better control of weeds will be a tremendous tool for all beet producers, but particularly helpful as energy beets are grown in new areas by growers that don’t have as much experience with the crop, Libsack says. Unlike with conventional beet crops, with which herbicide application timing is critical, Roundup Ready beets make it possible for producers to apply herbicides within a much larger time window. “With the Roundup technology, even though you don’t want to have weed competition for the crops you could go out and clean up the weeds pretty easily, even at larger stages,” he said, adding that’s a big plus in areas of the south, where weather conditions are different than in traditional sugar beet growing areas. “This really opens up a lot of markets and really gives a lot more growers an opportunity to grow beets.”

There’s been interest in developing energy beet-to-ethanol plants in the U.S., including by Patriot Bioenergy. Beginning in the spring of 2011, the company started working with Betaseed on field trials of energy beets in Kentucky, Ford said. Patriot Bioenergy is currently growing energy beets in Whitley County and Adair County and, this fall, plans to expand to include Roundup Ready energy beets at both those sites as well as in Pike County. The aim is to build 4 MMgy energy beet and waste sugar stream-to-ethanol plants in Whitley and Adair counties and a 2 MMgy energy beet-to-ethanol plant in Pike County, Ford said. The Whitley project is currently in the financing stage and the company is hopeful it can begin construction by fall 2013 and have the plant operational by spring 2014.

Before settling on energy beets as a feedstock, Patriot Bioenergy was considering sweet sorghum. However, energy beets have a higher yield per acre and a longer growing season. In fact, the company is currently testing whether energy beets left in the ground through the winter have a comparable sugar and ethanol yield to energy beets harvested in the fall. If so, Ford says, Kentucky energy beet farmers will be able to plant a second crop in the fall and harvest in the spring.

Another development group eyeing energy beets as an ethanol feedstock is North Dakota-based Green Vision Group, which wants to build multiple 20 MMgy dedicated energy beet plants. In addition, Mendota Bioenergy LLC is working to build an energy beet-to-ethanol plant in Mendota, Calif. Currently the company is waiting to hear if it will receive a $5 million grant from the state of California to build a pilot plant, Jim Tischer, project manger, told EPM.