This Government’s sugar plans, whether changing the tariff regime or refusing to reconsider the neonics ban for beet, prove no Minister is backing British farming, says Leicestershire arable and beef farmer Joe Stanley.
Surprisingly for a man who used to have a BMI north of 35, I’ve never had a particularly sweet tooth myself - but I can recognise a sugar rush when I see one.
Last week Government announced the introduction, from January 1 2021 – the day EU transitional arrangements end – of a new zero tariff, 260,000t Autonomous Tariff Quota (ATQ) for raw cane sugar grown anywhere in the world.
Stay with me.
This benefits precisely one company, American-owned Tate & Lyle, the great domestic competitor to British Sugar which produces its product through home-grown sugar beet.
Both companies service about 50 per cent of British demand – some 2mt of sugar per year.
T&L already has unlimited duty-free access to cane sugar from smaller developing countries around the world as part of the EU’s attempts to encourage fair trade and economic development.
But this new ATQ will allow T&L to source its imports not from these countries, but instead from a handful of larger cane producing nations whose producers benefit from generous state support and use production methods which would be illegal in the UK – both on environmental and ethical grounds.
They are currently effectively excluded from our market by tariffs of up to 100 per cent.
It’s estimated that this single ATQ will save T&L £72.8m per year and enable them to undercut British beet growers.
These domestic growers already produce to incredibly tight margins, while meeting some of the highest production standards in the world – and only a few miles from the factories which turn the beets to sugar.
Tate & Lyle have made no secret of their longstanding desire to overturn the existing EU tariff schedule on cane sugar.
According to Greenpeace, their lobbyists can be found stalking the corridors of Government with metronomic regularity, and they were one of the only large UK businesses to vocally support Brexit in 2016.
In 2017, they were sponsors of the Conservative Party Conference, their names adorning the lanyards of every delegate.
It would have been a familiar sight to then Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, who worked for T&L for 17 years before entering politics.
In an addendum for our sugar beet growers, the French Government announced last week that it will introduce a three-year derogation for its beet growers on the use of previously banned neonicotinoid seed dressings.
Explaining the move, their Agriculture Minister stated; “The beet industry is facing an unprecedented crisis…there is currently no alternative to protect beet from aphids. At a time when we have made it a priority to regain our food sovereignty, we need to find a sustainable balance”.
In response, Defra vowed to maintain its own ban, citing concerns around pollinator health – despite British growers of perennially non-flowering beet suffering devastating losses as a result of aphid-borne virus.
Why do these issues matter, beyond the impact on a few thousand beet growers and 10,000 associated jobs?
The incongruity of the governing Brexit establishment – having ‘taken back control’ with a strong whiff of nationalism – altering trade policy to benefit a single American-owned company at the expense of a more sustainable British industry should give us all pause when we consider the looming endgame to be played out in the Trade and Agriculture Commission.
Some of the extreme free-marketeers appointed to that body will no doubt take a dim view of ‘Backing British Farming’ merely on the grounds of rural jobs, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, anti-microbial resistance, food traceability or food security.
There are much more pressing issues, such as ideological purity (and winning) to consider.
And when even the French – Gallic pesticide ‘superhawks’ that they are – concede that neonics are a requirement for successful beet growing, you have to ask questions over the motivations and sheer lack of sense currently prevailing in Defra as they refuse to even consider following suit.
What does this say for post-Brexit science-led agriculture policy in the UK?
We are on the brink.
The coming months will be pivotal in deciding whether we, any of us, will have farming businesses to pass on to the next generation.
Do everything you can to back yourselves – because truly, nobody in this Government is backing you.
You can find Joe tweeting at @JoeWStanley