ONTARIO - Researchers at Oregon State University's Malheur Experiment Station are testing "transgenic" sugar beets resistant to the common, and easy to apply, non-selective herbicides Liberty and Roundup.
Though the frequency of spraying likely would not change, one hope is that the process of controlling weeds could be simplified with herbicide-resistant beets because growers could spray for a variety of broadleaf and grass weeds without fear of harming their crop, says Corey Ransom, a weed specialist at the Malheur station.
"Transgenic refers to the process of transferring a gene with desirable attributes from one species to another," Ransom said. "The same gene has already been used in Roundup Ready soybeans for two years and is scheduled for testing in Roundup Ready corn next year."
The gene inserted into these three crops was found in a bacteria, Ransom explained.
The transgenic sugar beets may not inherently be bigger or sweeter than other sugar beets, he pointed out, but simplified weed control may allow them to grow larger and yield more sugar.
The Malheur trial plot and another in Kimberly, Idaho, are primarily designed to test the yields of the new beets against sugar beet varieties commonly grown in the region, according to Ransom.
The area from Malheur County in east-central Oregon through southwest Idaho across the Snake River Plane produces about a quarter of a million acres of sugar beets each year. Given the volatility of sugar markets, any reduction in production costs is welcome, noted Ransom.
"Malheur County has about 12,000 acres in production providing a gross income of about $11 million," he said.
However, Ransom cautions, what transgenic beets mean in terms of profitably for farmers is not yet clear. Transgenic beets could make weed control simpler and reduce weed losses and input costs, but a price for the patented seeds has not yet been established.