Tom Wright’s family grew sugar beet on their mixed farm near Moulton St Mary in Norfolk for more than a century, but this year they have planted none.
“We’ve considered the future of the crop very carefully over the last 10 years, and we know that at the current prices it’s not making money any more,” Wright said. “It’s sad. My family have grown it for five generations, since 1912, and there have been bad times before, but now it really is the end of the road.”
Wright is not alone. After extreme weather and disease ravaged the 2020 crop, some farmers have given up beet growing and others cut back, leading the National Farmers’ Union to predict a fall of 10 per cent to 15 per cent in the area planted in 2021 and warn of potential further cuts in future.
The British sugar beet sector, which produces more than half the sugar consumed in the UK, has also been hit by pricing pressures in part due to EU deregulation four years ago.
All of these factors have led to tensions between farmers and their sole buyer British Sugar, the only processor of UK-grown sugar beet.
In an attempt to help growers hit by virus yellows, the disease that has blighted the crop, the company, a division of Associated British Foods, launched an assurance scheme for growers. But in a tense emergency videoconference in March, farmers told management that it needed to do more.
“We do grow it at our own risk, but growers are looking for some kind of recompense for the sheer difficulties that 2020 brought, and also in the future more of a risk-reward mechanism to support [their] loyalty,” said Michael Sly, chair of the NFU sugar board.
Like others, Lincolnshire grower Andrew Ward argued the future of UK sugar production was at stake: “If they don’t pay more, it will be the end of the UK sugar industry.”
Paul Kenward, managing director at British Sugar, told the Financial Times it was “sobering to hear the individual stories of a very difficult season” and said the company would take farmers’ feedback on board.
Sugar production from UK beets dates back to the 1912 opening of a factory at Cantley, Norfolk. Now, about 3,000 growers across East Anglia and the East Midlands produce about 8m tonnes of sugar annually for British Sugar under contracts negotiated by the NFU.
It is a system different from other UK crops, and has its own quirky language, with the annual winter harvest known as a “campaign” in which beets are “lifted” from the ground.
Kenward said the UK sector has become highly productive: “You get more sugar per acre in East Anglia than you do in Brazil. Our factories are incredibly efficient too.”
But in recent years the crop has been hit by virus yellows, which is spread by aphids. Farmers said the problem was worsened by an EU ban in 2018 of seed treatments containing pesticides called neonicotinoids, citing a risk to bees.
Member states could still choose to authorise emergency use but pre-Brexit the UK opted not to do so. The government this year gave permission in principle for its use, in a move condemned by environmental groups, although the industry will not use it in 2021 as weather projections indicate the virus will hit less severely.
Meanwhile, prices paid to growers have gradually declined, especially following the EU deregulation.
David Hoyles, a grower in south-east Lincolnshire, said: “The last few years have been more difficult: the price has come down and . . . if you get a poor year, it hits you a lot harder.”
Hoyles added: “With global warming we’ve seen a change in weather patterns, with hot dry spells and wet spells, more extremes, and that has brought other pests and diseases to the crop.”
British Sugar has increased prices paid to farmers by 70p a tonne this year as global sugar prices rallied and after it reported improved profitability in the financial year to September 2020 “from the unacceptable levels seen over the two years after the abolition of EU sugar quotas in October 2017”.
But the company said the late 2020 harvest was hit by “truly exceptional” weather, including the wettest February since 1914 and driest May since 1868.
Hoyles said the combination of weather and disease caused a 61 per cent drop in yields and the NFU’s Sly put growers’ losses at £45m. Some are replacing beet with oilseed rape or oats.
James Peck of PX Farms in Cambridgeshire said he started growing sugar beet eight years ago and was the country’s third-largest grower, producing about 82,000 tonnes. But he stopped after losing £640,000 on the 2020 harvest, even though he valued sugar beet’s role in crop rotation, helping to control weeds.
British Sugar said plant breeders are working on varieties that would resist virus yellows. It also hopes the disease can be fought using gene editing, in which DNA sequences are deleted, modified or inserted.
The UK government is consulting on taking a more liberal approach to gene editing than the EU. This would be “the closest thing to a silver bullet” for virus yellows, said Kenward.
British Sugar has left the door open to improved deals with growers. “We are very optimistic for the growing season to come, and I look forward to putting this crop behind us and embracing the many opportunities the industry has to grow profitably together,” Kenward said.
Farmers such as Wright and Peck, however, are looking elsewhere. Wright said his family’s decision to stop growing beet has caused a stir locally because his farm is just four miles from the Cantley factory.
“We’re in an area of historic growing where every farm has grown sugar beet, and we’re one of the first in our immediate area to stop. It’s quite a big thing,” he said.