WASHINGTON — The US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service has asked for public comment on its proposal to add sugarcane to its List of Bioengineered (BE) Foods in a notice published July 24 in the Federal Register. The addition would have importance in that some food manufacturers have shied away from beet sugar over the last several years and have employed more cane sugar in products to avoid controversies surrounding the use of bioengineered crops and food ingredients derived from them.

As required by Congress, the USDA in December 2018 announced regulations to implement the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which requires food manufacturers and importers to disclose to consumers through specified means any foods or food ingredients they use that are or may be bioengineered.

The regulations became effective in February 2019 with a mandatory compliance date of Jan. 1, 2022.

Under the implementing regulations, the AMS developed a list of bioengineered foods for which regulated entities must maintain records. Records will inform regulated entities whether they must make a bioengineered food disclosure.

The AMS said in the Federal Register notice, “If a regulated entity is using a food or ingredient produced from an item on the list, they must make a bioengineered food disclosure unless they have records demonstrating that the food or ingredient they are using is not bioengineered. Similarly, even if a food is not on the list, a regulated entity must make a bioengineered food disclosure if they have actual knowledge of a food or ingredient they are using is a bioengineered food or a bioengineered food ingredient.”

Nearly all US and Canadian sugarbeets are of bioengineered varieties, and sugarbeet figures prominently on the AMS List of Bioengineered Foods.

The first BE herbicide-tolerant sugarbeets were approved in the United States in 1998. Small amounts of the varieties were produced for trial and seed production in 2006 and 2007. Producer adoption rates beginning in 2008 were phenomenal. In 2008, more than 60% of the harvested sugarbeet acreage was planted to BE varieties, and by 2009, adoption rates had risen to 95%. By 2013, 99.9% of harvested sugarbeet acreage comprised BE varieties, according to the USDA.

BE sugarbeets encountered legal challenges along the road to deregulation and commercial production from organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Center for Food Safety and the Organic Seed Alliance. But challenges were satisfied or set aside, and BE herbicide-tolerant sugarbeets were officially fully deregulated by all relevant federal agencies in July 2012.

In contrast, there is no BE sugarcane currently being grown commercially in the United States. But that is not a criterion for inclusion in the AMS List of Bioengineered Foods. The AMS said it has two criteria for including a food on the list: first, whether the BE food has been authorized for commercial production somewhere in the world, and second, whether the food is currently in legal commercial production for human food somewhere in the world.

The AMS case for sugarcane’s inclusion in the List of BE Foods is based on developments in Brazil.

“AMS believes that Brazil approved bioengineered sugarcane for commercial release and that bioengineered sugarcane is currently in legal commercial production,” the AMS said in the Federal Register notice. “The sugarcane was developed using recombinant DNA technology to be insect-resistant to help control sugarcane borer infestations. Brazil approved the bioengineered sugarcane for commercial production in 2018 and planted approximately 4,000 hectares for commercial production in the 2018-19 crop year. As a result, AMS believes that sugarcane should be added to the list.”

The AMS said in adding sugarcane to the list, it would specify insect-resistant sugarcane because that is the only bioengineered trait used in its production to date.

The AMS List of Bioengineered Foods includes alfalfa, apple (Artic varieties), canola, corn, cotton, eggplant (BARI Bt Begun varieties), papaya (ringspot virus-resistant varieties), pineapple (pink flesh varieties), potato, salmon (AquAdvantage), soybean, squash (summer), and sugarbeet.

Some of these crops or foods are widely grown in the United States such as alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, sugarbeets and soybeans. BE varieties of other foods, such as eggplant and pineapple, are on the list because they are in commercial production in certain other countries; for instance, BE eggplant in Bangladesh and BE pink flesh pineapple in Costa Rica.