ELi on EARTH: Sweet Harvest

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Monday, October 19, 2015, 8:08 am
Aron Sousa

Photo: Pioneer sugar plant in Sebewaing, Michigan, in a photo taken by the author about two weeks ago.

The sugar beet harvest has arrived in Michigan just to the north and east of East Lansing. Driving by the areas where the beets are farmed, you can see huge piles of the beets piled in trucks and on staging pads across the region. The beets look like big, cream-colored turnips. One pile I drove by in Sebewaing two weeks ago was about 15-feet high, two lanes wide, and as long as a football field. (See below.)

Sugar beet farming is an important part of Michigan’s economy. There is a century-long history of successful sugar beet production and sugar refining in Michigan, particularly in areas in and around the Thumb. Sugar companies in the area have merged over the years and centered in a cooperative that provides the infrastructure for moving sugar beets to market by processing beets into sugar for consumers.

Sugar beets have been a useful crop in Europe for nearly three hundred years. In response to global events, both France and Prussia bred higher sucrose strains of the beet while working to improve sugar processing. Napoleon in particular hoped sugar beets could supply the French people with sugar following the British naval blockade of Europe and the successful Haitian slave revolt, both of which effectively denied the French access to tropical sugar cane from the Americas.

In the U.S., sugar beets got a significant boost from northern Abolitionists, who sought to avoid sugar cane because it was universally produced with slave labor. Season after season, farmers increased the sugar content in sugar beets through genetic crosses, from 5-10% to near 20%. In more recent times, sugar beets have been genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (better known as Roundup®).

Chemically, the sugar (sucrose) that comes from sugar cane and from sugar beets is the same. Both cane and beets are processed into table sugar through a process that uses water to extract the sugar from the harvested plant and then crystallization to purify the sucrose.

In terms of the environment, beet and cane sugar have their weaknesses and strengths. There is a market for organic cane sugar, but sugar cane is exclusively a tropical plant and can’t be grown here. Furthermore, sugar cane requires large amounts of water that has historically resulted in draining important wetlands, and cane fields are typically burned during harvest, causing significant air pollution and contributing about a fifth of the carbon emissions that result from farming cane sugar. Sugar beets, on the other hand, come with high herbicide use, although Michigan sugar is genuinely local (reducing the carbon footprint required to get it to our grocery stores).

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