Growers have warned the UK sugar industry could be consigned to the history books unless British Sugar increases prices above £30/tonne.
Tensions among growers have escalated in recent weeks, with many preparing to turn their back on generations of family tradition and ditch the ‘uneconomical’ crop.
Norfolk farmer Tom Wright said his farm had been growing beet for five generations, but would be replacing it with oilseed rape.
He said: “We have never grown it before. But even a second wheat crop has got better margins and less risks and leaves soil in good condition.”
Price was the main driver for them moving away from sugar beet, with those speaking to Farmers Guardian highlighting prices had dropped dramatically since the 1990s, but costs had soared.
In addition, growers were facing a diminished plant protection arsenal.
Lincolnshire grower Andrew Ward said farmers were taking all the risk.
He added his calculations showed they would need yields of 68t/hectare (28t/acre) just to break even, not including damage costs or wages.
“[The national beet area is] 10,000 acres down this year. I think there will be more,” he said, adding they were tied into a contract but would be stopping when it ended unless the price ‘began with a three’.
“It is not a threat, it is fact. We are tired of ruining our soil structure and not being paid for all that effort.”
He added the problems for the industry went higher than just British Sugar, pointing to labelling laws which allowed cane sugar processed in the UK to be branded with a Union Jack, coupled with the unfair advantage cane growers had with plant protection products.
And producers’ struggles were making others question their support of the industry, with Sheffield dairy farmer and Our Cow Molly owner Eddie Andrew stating he wanted to support UK growers by using beet sugar in his ice cream, but hated the thought of growers losing out on every bag he bought.
Mr Andrew, who encouraged the University of Sheffield to use British sugar instead of Fairtrade cane sugar, said it was now questioning whether it would be better to switch back to Fairtrade due to the problems UK growers faced.
Peter Watson, British Sugar Agriculture Director said: “It has been a truly exceptional sugar beet season, starting with more aphids than ever before surviving a mild winter, followed by heavy rains during February, and then the driest May since 1862 affecting the crop’s establishment. We then saw more heavy rain this winter, causing harvesting difficulties and damage. It has been a dreadful season, and we thank our growers and contractors sincerely for their hard work and considerable effort over the campaign.”
“British Sugar have done all we can to help growers recover the whole crop. We have slowed down, and even paused, production at our factories to give growers more time to deliver their remaining beet. We will continue to explore flexible approaches to campaign dates and beet deliveries in the future.
“We are relieved that the emergency our crop experienced in 2020 is not likely to be repeated in 2021. Backed by over 50 years of data and research, the Rothamsted Virus Yellows forecast predicts only one-tenth of the virus levels in this year’s crop compared to last (before any controls). We are implementing in-field solutions for Cercospora this season, and we continue to work with our industry partners on the long-term solutions we all want to see to tackle Virus Yellows, including virus-tolerant varieties, seed technology and stewardship measures.
“We recognise growers’ real concerns and have put in place a range of measures to help support them in growing the crop, including an enhanced support package with a guaranteed minimum market-linked bonus. We have also funded a £12m Virus Yellows Assurance Fund, in place over the next three years.”
“We respect every grower’s decision on what they grow, but we remain confident in the future of our homegrown beet sugar industry, which in normal years has world-leading field yields, factory efficiencies and market positions.”