With the impact of the Brexit vote still relatively unknown, independent agricultural consultant Robin Limb looks at what the future could have in store for UK sugar growers.
The decision to vote out of the European Union (EU) may have repercussions for decades to come.
One thing is for certain, however, and that is the decision is irreversible, regardless of what the implications may be.
The impact on growers of sugar beet could also be significant.
Despite the progressive deregulation of beet sugar production within the EU, outside the climate is far more uncertain.
The EU sugar regime is seen as one of the last surviving dinosaurs of the Common Agricultural Policy; its purpose to protect home producers from unwelcome foreign competition.
Both growers and processors of beet have profited massively from this protectionist bubble, but this may soon seem like a distant dream.
Sugar beet may have never gained a foothold in Europe in the first place had it not been for the advent of the Napoleonic war.
When Norfolk’s most famous son Nelson blockaded French ports and locked out supplies of cane sugar, Napoleon instructed farmers to grow sugar from ‘beets’.
The technology was not unknown, but yields were much lower than from cane sources.
Despite this, the French industry flourished, and before long it spread across the continent, finally making its way across the channel into Norfolk thanks to a migrant Dutch farmer Johannes van Rossum, who built the first factory at Cantley in 1912.
Despite coming from behind the curve, beet sugar yields are now capable of outrunning cane sugar production. This has been witnessed in California’s Imperial Valley, where the world record sugar yield currently stands at about 30 tonnes/hectare (12t/acre) – the equivalent of close to 200t/ha (81t/acre) of beet.
The commodity still remains the most political on the planet. However, not only because the alternative sources are virtually indistinguishable as a finished product.
But the joker in the pack is the advent of Brexit.
Inside the EU, tariff protection against the irresponsible dumping of world market sugar is a significant barrier. Outside of the EU, there is a little chance the UK Government will offer the same protection.
Sugar exporting nations, such as Brazil, Australia and Indonesia, view the UK as a fertile market, once we are outside the protective comfort blanket of the EU.
The UK’s imminent departure from the EU will only hasten the restructuring of the home-grown beet industry.
There are currently about 3,000 beet growers and four processing sites: what the numbers will look like by 2020 is anyone’s guess.
British Sugar’s parent company, Associated British Foods, is known for its patience through times of turbulence, and certainly has not lost out since its acquisition of the company in 1990.
In anticipation of unrestricted production, competition between EU manufacturers for market share is already fierce as they seek to jockey for position in advance of deregulation. This is only likely to intensify once quotas have gone.
Growers who took the option of a contract ‘holiday’ in 2016 may otherwise have ceased production, but instead clung onto their options in the hope there might be some monetary compensation for ultimately throwing in the towel.
If this is the case, they will be sadly disappointed. Next year will be decision time for the wavering grower vote and, much like the EU ballot, there will be no third option.
Having had the option to sit on the fence for the last two years and grow as much or as little beet as appealed, in 2017 growers will have to decide if they are voting ‘in’ or ‘out’ with the crop.
Constructive discussions between British Sugar and the NFU have been underway for some time about how to structure a post-quota contract.
Flexibility around contract term and pricing were two of the main requests following comprehensive canvassing of growers’ opinions, aimed at countering the uncertainty over how the rest of this decade will play out before hopefully some semblance of stability returns.
The recently announced agreement by NFU Sugar and British Sugar on the 2017 price and contact arrangements has at least clarified muddied waters.
Despite an 8.4 per cent increase on the current year, many growers will see £22/t as insufficient reward for their efforts and finally dump the crop.
Ultimately, despite the processor’s monopoly status, growers hold the whip-hand.
Farmers have many options when it comes to what they can do with their land, but British Sugar has substantially only one when it comes to its factories.
The one positive aspect we can extract from the current mess the industry finds itself in is the two sides are united in their determination not to descend into rancour and bitterness. The current incumbents on both sides deserve credit for holding their nerve in uncertain waters.
The only ‘get of jail free card’ the beet industry has left to play is yield. The legacy of beet yield increase over the last 30 years remains unparalleled, by comparison with competing crops.
The UK’s record average adjusted yield of just less than 80t/ha (32t/acre) is still only half of what has been achieved in domestic trials grown under commercial conditions.
There remains no artificial ceiling on beet yield, and with at least 1 per cent per annum being contributed by new varieties alone, there is much yet to embrace.
The UK beet industry remains highly efficient – even on a global scale. Factories such as Wissington, near Downham Market, Norfolk, are a showcase of productivity and sustainability, producing virtually no waste products and recycling by-products of the process of turning beet into sugar.
From bio-ethanol to energy, tomatoes and topsoil, on a cost/tonne of production basis, the factory is globally competitive and should in theory always have a future. It was not until 2005 that yields hit 60t/ha (25t/acre).
By 2009, a new record of 70t/ha (28t/acre) was hit, and in 2014 the number was massively overtaken, due mainly to favourable weather.
In 2014, more than 100 growers averaged more than 100t/ha (40t/acre), not all of which were on the best land.
Sugar beet is a very forgiving crop: just establish it well, protect it from pests at a vulnerable stage, then add water, nutrients and sunshine.
Being a biennial crop, beet does not ripen or senesce as cereals, potatoes or oilseed rape do. The beet plant wants to keep growing into year two to produce a seed-head, but is harvested for its sugar before that.
The significance is the crop can continue to put on weight and sugar content during a favourable autumn and mild winter.
Unfortunately, sugar does not enjoy the best of reputations presently, under fire from all sides of medical and health lobbies, and growers may be forgiven for deliberating over the crop’s future.
The fact remains that sugar beet continues to contribute massively to the arable rotation in regions where it is grown, and is a sustainable and attractive break crop for many farmers.
Those considering getting out should think carefully. Unless growers have done the maths, there is no place for emotion or rhetoric.
Until such time as above-average beet production cannot compete with alternatives, there is a compelling argument to remain with the crop.
Whether the same can be said for EU membership is another question. Nelson unwittingly catalysed the EU and UK sugar beet industry, but what its future holds still remains uncertain.