12 Oktober 2004

UK: Battle to save beet farm jobs

East Anglia’s sugar beet industry is at risk of losing thousands of jobs because of proposed EU reforms, the Government is warned today.

Ministers are being urged to quick action by former agriculture minister Gillian Shephard, who will use a Commons debate to say the sugar beet industry, which employs 10,000 people in Norfolk and Suffolk, is at a crossroads.

Fears centre on European Commission plans for changes which could slash the minimum beet price from £28 a tonne to £18 over three years,and reduce the total EU production quota by 16pc.

Not only will it hit the incomes of farmers, but the move will also harm the bio-diversity of present crop patterns and as a consequence the environment, says Mrs Shephard.

The MP for South West Norfolk will also call on ministers to work with scientists at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich and other experts to find ways of using beet for non-food purposes like bio-fuels and plastics.

“It is not too late for them to use this opportunity to help create a stable future for agriculture, which means in turn for rural communities, our environment, and ultimately, the sustainability of the plant,” she will say in an adjournment debate.

“Will they take this opportunity? Time is running out fast.”

Mrs Shephard’s remarks come as the proposed sugar reforms are debated at a conference at the JIC today.

The Commission wants to achieve a 37pc cut in beet prices over three years and growers and processors are concerned such price levels would threaten beet supplies, even in the most productive areas of the UK.

The reforms are aimed at bringing the sugar quota system into line with regimes for arable, livestock and dairy, together with olive oil, hops, tobacco and cotton.

It is proposed to cut the minimum beet price by about 35pc and reduce the total EU production quota. Applied equally across the EU, the UK could stand to lose 150,000 tonnes of the beet contract – a tenth of the national quota for sugar production.

There will be compensation payments representing about 60pc of the price reduction through a new ‘decoupled payment’, but Mrs Shephard will question whether these will be specific to beet growers and not shared out across all farmers.

“Ten thousand people are currently employed in Norfolk and Suffolk in the beet industry,” she will say.

“The crop provides a bankable income even more valuable when agriculture’s fortunes are at a low point, as now, and a stability for the future of the family farms who produce 80pc of the total crop. The price and quota cuts presently proposed will make beet production a thing of the past on such farms.

“That in turn will affect the bio-diversity of our present crop pattern across the country. The less developed countries of the world, for whose benefit the changes are said to be being made, are less than enthusiastic, while in Brazil there are fears not only for the environment but also for the work force if most world sugar production takes place there.”

Beet farmers in East Anglia account for around 50pc of the industry in the UK and the Wissington factory processes a quarter of the national crop. But even given its strong position, farmers say that a 37pc reduction in prices would make it uneconomic to continue with beet.

Ross Haddow, farm manager at the Stody estate at Melton Constable, says the EU proposals are “draconian” and would have severe implications for the industry.

“Sugar beet has been one of our most profitable crops, but a 37pc price cut would, I suspect, make it uneconomic for British Sugar, and definitely uneconomic for us,” he says.

“About one sixth of our farm is sugar beet and because we have sugar beet we have spring cropping and a variety of drilling dates which are of enormous benefit to wildlife.”

Pink-footed regularly feed on sugar beet tops, something to which farmers do not object, and the threatened stone curlews also benefit from the bare ground of sugar beet crops. Other birds and animals would also stand to lose further habitat and food if sugar beet production declines, says Mr Haddow.

“If we were to grow just oil seed rape and wheat, it would become a prairie – almost a mono-culture.”

Source: EDP24 Oct 11, 2004.

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