East Anglian beet growers ‘can compete with best in world’

East of England beet growers can compete with the best in the world given the chance and time to adapt, farmers have been told.

On a sugar-yield basis, beet growers in the east of England can achieve as good as or even higher than cane growers in Brazil, said fenland farmer William Martin.

While it was once true that the cane industry was more productive, now sugar beet could take on the best in the world, Mr Martin told nearly 90 growers at Easton College.

However, the home-grown industry needed time to adapt and confidence to invest in increased capacity and faster throughput at the four remaining factories.

Mr Martin, who farms at Littleport, near Ely, and is the chairman of the National Farmers’ Union’s sugar board, said that the European Commission had imposed significant cuts in production as a result of the sugar reforms in 2006 and again in 2008. “British Sugar closed two factories at York and Allscott as a result,” he added.

The proposed reforms of the EU sugar regime represented a potential opportunity for Europe’s most efficient sugar processor, British Sugar, if there was the opportunity to make the necessary investment.

“Campaigns are not going to get any shorter. British Sugar will invest n factories to put more beet through in the existing campaigns.”

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In an upbeat message, Mr Martin said growers had demonstrated the ability to produce home-grown sugar in the past few years. And as new varieties had been introduced, yields had continued to increase, he said.

He added that a proposed end to sugar quotas – actually the right to process sugar for human consumption in the European market – would also involve ending restrictions on the production of a major competitor to sugar. It was possible that an estimated one million tonnes of isoglucose, or high fructose syrup produced from mainly North American maize could account for a significant volume required by soft drinks’ makers.

And suggestions that Brazil could immediately step up production was debatable given the lack of road, rail and port facilities to ship sugars to Europe. As a large percentage of Brazil’s sugar was grown up to 5,000 miles from the coast and the sole exporting port, Santos, Mr Martin argued that home-grown and EU sugar would continue to play a significant role in the longer term.

And just across the Channel, France has a potential one million tonnes of refining capacity, which could be readily become available if the processing campaigns were extended for a month or two.

As Europe prepared to discuss reforms to the sugar regime, Mr Martin stressed that it was absolutely vital that farmers were given legal protection under EU competition law to be represented by a single growers’ organisation. There was a major risk that the Commission could remove this legal protection as part of the reforms, which must be resisted.

As the chairman, Mid-Norfolk farmer Robert Hambidge, who is a member of the sugar board noted, the impact on the dairy sector when single producer bodies had been scrapped was fairly disastrous.

Mr Martin was keen to canvas growers’ views on proposed frost insurance following the disaster of the loss of an estimated one million tonnes of beet during the snow and ice during the last campaign.

“We spent the summer looking quite intensively at what could be done in terms of frost insurance for the sugar beet crop,” he added. “We’re looking at whether something can be put in place for 2012 onwards.

Broadly, a proposed scheme, which would cover half the value of the crop, would cost about 10p per tonne but must operate on a compulsory basis across the whole crop. It could not be an opt-in- or opt-out.