- Associated Press - Thursday, December 3, 2015

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - The head of the nation’s largest sugar beet cooperative said Thursday that shareholders will see improved results this year, but two of his group’s biggest challenges are the anti-genetically modified foods movement and Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz.

American Crystal Sugar Co. CEO David Berg received the only round of applause during his speech to the group’s annual meeting when he challenged Cruz to a debate over the Republican presidential candidate’s call to do away with government support for the sugar industry.

“We will defend the sugar program for a long, long time,” Berg said, pretending he was addressing the Texas senator. “Hopefully longer than your presidential race will last.”

Berg said at a news conference afterward that if Cruz and other politicians against the sugar program get their way, it will put American sugar companies out of business in favor of exports from Brazil, where he said growers receive $2 billion from their government to grow sugar cane.

“Sen. Cruz says he doesn’t like crony capitalism, but how does he feel about subsidized socialism?” Berg asked. “Because that is what is going to happen.”

Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for the Cruz campaign, did not respond to an email seeking comment. Her cellphone wasn’t accepting voicemail.

Berg said anti-genetically modified organism sentiment is his group’s top obstacle. He said the company can weather the decision by Hershey Co. to buy only non-GMO cane sugar, but he is worried that more companies will follow suit.

“There are other companies that are making inquiries,” Berg said. “This is not something we are going to run out and go into a panic about. But it is something that we’ve certainly got our eyes on.”

The vast majority of scientific research has found genetically engineered foods to be generally safe, but some consumers are worried that new GMO foods could somehow become allergenic or toxic through the engineering process. Consumer advocates pushing for the labeling say shoppers have a right to know what is in their food, arguing that not enough is known about the effects of the technology.

Nearly 100 percent of sugar beets grown by American Crystal producers are Roundup-ready. Berg said those farmers could produce non-GMO crops and might look into doing so down the road, but at this point there is “no darn good reason” to do it. He said the science is sound and GMO foods are “extremely safe” to eat.

“It is very frustrating for our farmers,” Berg said.

Generally, Berg said, the mood among the shareholders is good. Sugar selling prices from this year to last have jumped from $37 to $45 a ton, due mostly to the U.S. sugar industry’s successful case to stop Mexico from dumping its sugar into American markets.

“This was, not exaggerating, a life and death thing for the domestic sugar industry,” Berg said.

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Follow Dave Kolpack on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DaveKolpackAP

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