Protesters march on British Sugar factory

Around 60 members of the Landworkers' Alliance marched to the British Sugar factory at Bury St Edmun

Around 60 members of the Landworkers' Alliance marched to the British Sugar factory at Bury St Edmunds on Wednesday to protest about the farm subsidy system. - Credit: Archant

Protesters have staged a march to the British Sugar factory at Bury St Edmunds to complain about a subsidy system which they claim favours big farms over small ones.

Around 60 members of the Landworkers' Alliance marched to the British Sugar factory at Bury St Edmun

Around 60 members of the Landworkers' Alliance marched to the British Sugar factory at Bury St Edmunds on Wednesday to protest about the farm subsidy system. - Credit: Archant

Around 60 farmer and grower members of the Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA) marched from Bury St Edmunds train station to the town’s British Sugar factory on Wednesday, to oppose what they claim is the government’s “biased and shortsighted focus” on industrial farming.

They were joined by New York-based performance artists Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping.

The protesters said they had chosen British Sugar, which is owned by food and retail giant Associated British Foods, as “a symbol of how broken our current food system is”. They argued that the company controls all of the sugar beet processing in the UK and that changes to agricultural policy, intensified under the coalition government, had resulted in less support for small-scale producers and a “distorted” subsidy system that encourages production on large-scale industrial farms.

LWA member Bob Sheppard said: “We want to see a subsidy system that supports farmers to get away from big industrial monocultures. The future of farming is in local, healthy, sustainable agriculture and not in the sort of monopoly that British Sugar represents. You can’t grow organic sugar beet in this country and get it processed, and for the beet that is grown, all the profits end up with ABF shareholders anyway. We want the profits to go to local communities.”

The LWA says at present 90% of fruit and 45% of vegetables consumed in the UK are imported, but small producers were in a strong position to increase domestic production of fruit and vegetables.

“Small scale, ecological farmers provide healthy fruit and veg, grass fed meat and dairy products, arable crops, carbon sequestration, more biodiversity and more employment. That’s what we should be supporting,” the LWA said.

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Joanne Mudhar, a member of the organising committee, who runs Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm, a community-supported agriculture scheme at Rushmere St Andrew, Ipswich, said: “We believe that the subsidised monopoly of sugar beet in the UK is a symbol of this. We did not wish to target employees of British Sugar - our issue is with the wider policy and regulatory framework concerning food and farming.

“For example, large scale UK landowners receive £3billion in EU CAP subsidies, while small scale farms like my farm receive no money at all, but are expected to follow excessive and inappropriate red tape designed for industrial scale agriculture.”

But with a level playing field, small farms like The Oak Tree could provide local, healthy food, provide local employment, keep money in the local economy rather than going to distant corporate shareholders, and take care of the environment, she said.

But Colm McKay, agriculture director at British Sugar, said his company was already supporting small farmers.

“British Sugar works with 3,500 growers and council tenant farmers to produce and process sugar beet in the UK. This includes many smaller farmers who continue to grow sugar beet as it provides a positive margin for them and continues to support the economic sustainability of their farms,” he said.

“In the UK, British Sugar also indirectly supports 13,000 rural jobs in their local communities.

“Sugar beet is an exceptional, rotational break crop and is eligible for Countryside and Environmental Stewardship points. It has lots of benefits for the farms on which it is grown and, as with any root crop good soil management removes any issues with soil quality.”

The aim of the ocmpany was to transform all its raw materials into sustainable products, he added. The company produced more than a million tonnes of sugar in the UK and an additional 500,000 tonnes of animal feed from sugar beet pulp. It recycled stones for building, lime for soil conditioning and soil for landscaping.

“At Wissington we produce 140 million tomatoes a year harnessing the surplus heat, CO2 and water generated by the sugar beet factory in one of the UK’s largest tomato nurseries - Cornerways,” he said.

“Using our Combined Heat & Power plants, we export enough electricity for 160,000 homes. We also invested in the UK’s first Bioethanol plant, producing 70 million litres of renewable fuel.”