Farmers' leaders blast British Sugar's beet crop offer

Sugar beets being delivered to the British Sugar factory in Bury St Edmunds

Sugar beet growers have fallen out with British Sugar over its latest "enhanced" package for them - Credit: Su Anderson

Sugar beet growing in the East of England could be under threat - as the latest offer for growing it came under fire from farmers' leaders.

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) Sugar division has laid into British Sugar's Beet Package Plus - warning that many growers will simply give up on the crop for good once their contracts come to an end.

“NFU Sugar in no way supports or endorses British Sugar’s Beet Package Plus," said NFU Sugar board chairman Michael Sly in a strongly--worded statement.

“For months NFU Sugar has expressed its concerns to British Sugar, and to the highest levels of AB Sugar, about the future viability of the home-grown sugar industry. Continuing low contract prices, coupled with much greater risks of yield loss from disease, means sugar beet is no longer viewed by many growers as a viable part of their rotations.

“Throughout, NFU Sugar has argued for a targeted package to acknowledge the risks growers have and will continue to face in growing the crop. This has not been delivered. NFU Sugar also urged British Sugar to increase the support for those growers who are honouring their multi-year contracts and so risk big losses again this year. British Sugar refused.

“NFU Sugar urged British Sugar to pay growers some of their 2021 contract in early summer to help with the desperate cash flow situation many growers are facing. Again, British Sugar refused. NFU Sugar estimates the ‘cash flow support’ British Sugar has offered to growers to be worth just one penny per tonne on average.

“Growers will see the guaranteed surplus price for 2021 for what it is: British Sugar’s desperate need for all the sugar it can get this coming year; given the smaller than normal acreage being drilled in 2021 as growers reduce area or have stopped growing entirely, and British Sugar’s recognition of the opportunities many growers have to sell surplus beet at good prices for feed or energy."

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But British Sugar said it was an enhanced deal, with a guaranteed minimum from 80p per adjusted tonne of the crop, cash flow support and more flexibility on crop delivery to help farmers overcome logistical issues around lifting the crop in difficult conditions. A guaranteed 2021/22 surplus beet price was fixed at £20.30 per adjusted tonne, said the company.

British Sugar Agriculture director Peter Watson said: “Following a difficult season in 2020/21, we are pleased to offer this enhanced support package to our sugar beet growers to help the whole industry for the upcoming season. We thank growers for their considerable support over the last year and look forward to working with all our colleagues across the homegrown beet sugar industry in the upcoming season.”

But Mr Sly suggested growers would "not be seduced" by the company's "vague promises of jam tomorrow".

“To our growers British Sugar claims poverty, but to the City its parent company Associated British Foods recently announced a £100m profit for the global sugar division AB Sugar, driven in part by improved profitability at British Sugar. Market conditions this year indicate British Sugar’s profitability will likely continue to improve," he said.

“We believe that growers will not be seduced by British Sugar’s vague promises of ‘jam tomorrow’ in today's letter to growers, or in its previous communication.

“NFU Sugar believes in the future of the home-grown sugar beet industry, but we remain increasingly concerned that British Sugar’s complacency puts this at severe risk. We firmly believe that to have any hope of retaining the strong base of domestic growers for the longer term, sugar beet needs to give growers a viable financial return, something NFU Sugar will continue to fight for on our growers’ behalf.”

British Sugar said a £12m Virus Yellows Assurance Fund also remained in place to help growers whose crops were affected, and said to support growers over the final weeks of the current campaign it had slowed beet throughput at its factories - which include one at Bury St Edmunds -  to allow more time for growers to deliver their remaining crop.

"Should this not be possible before their contracted factory finishes its campaign for this season, growers will be able to deliver to their next closest factory, at British Sugar’s cost," the company said.




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