UK Sugar Beet: Where it all began
Sugar beet production can chart its history back to the early years of last century, driven by the needs of national self-sufficiency through two World Wars. Membership of the European Union (then the Common Market), in 1973, gave additional support to the UK sugar beet industry through guaranteed production quotas and minimum prices for both sugar and sugar beet. Everyone was happy and felt cocooned in the economic comfort blanket that was called the EU Sugar Regime – a Brussels invention designed to secure home sugar industries’ markets, and keep out foreign competition.
In 2017, the main planks of the Sugar Regime have now disappeared. Sugar production quotas have been abolished, effectively meaning that unbridled production is now an option for sugar beet processors and growers. Internal market competition has already reached fever pitch, with expansion reliant solely on being able to grab market share from your EU neighbours. The only remaining support that the EU industry has left is a formidable import tariff barrier, deterring foreign sugar exporters such as Brazil from accessing our markets. Post-Brexit, the future looks far more uncertain.
UK Sugar Beet: Enters the world stage
It is highly improbable that when the UK finally exits the EU, our government will not provide much if any tariff protection, and hence the floodgates may be thrown wide-open when it comes to sugar imports. The French sugar beet industry is already on the war-path, having claimed 20% of the UK domestic sugar market in the last two years, and is now on an equal footing with cane refiner Tate & Lyle. British Sugar has largely retained its market volume, but even it will struggle if faced with a relentless tide of cheap – and possibly subsidised – foreign imports.
However, with the hangover sugar stocks from the huge 2014 crop, which massively depressed the market all but disappeared by the end of 2016, prices have firmed up on the world sugar market and despite the pressures the major processors have all shown intent to increase output.
The UK may well be threatened with foreign imports, but one of the bonuses of deregulation, in accordance with World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, is that export restrictions will also be removed. This will allow UK grown surplus production to find a home on the world market, and thus provide a pressure relief valve for excess output.
UK Sugar Beet: A little too sweet?
As if trading conditions weren’t enough to deal with, sugar in our diets continues to come under a hail of fire from campaigning groups, all determined to ensure we eliminate refined sucrose from our food. One of George Osborne’s parting shots was to announce a tax on sugary drinks from March 2018. The fact is that the sugar tax will do nothing to impact childhood obesity, and will certainly not raise the forecasted £620M revenue for the exchequer.
Food taxes have been tried in a number of countries over the years, and have always failed to change consumption patterns. The UK tax on soft drinks only operates at added sugar levels of 5% or more, equating to about 18 to 24 pence extra on a litre bottle: This is unlikely to deter the average consumer, particularly as manufacturers are under no obligation to pass on the tax in full, or even at all. Furthermore, many drinks manufacturers have already voluntarily reduced sugar inclusion, as an acknowledgement of public concerns. A G Barr said in a press release after the sugar tax announcement, that it saw no problems in terms of sales of its products such as Irn Bru. A spokesman for the company stated that it would re-formulate its brands to escape the sugar tax, and would explore new market opportunities and re-position its product range.
UK Sugar Beet: Efficiency is our key to success
The UK beet sugar industry is only just over 100 years old. In that time we have witnessed more technological improvement and mechanisation than could ever have been imagined. Man-hours per hectare have reduced ten-fold since the introduction of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and mechanisation, together with a greater understanding of how the crop grows.
Our ability to maximise the yield potential of sugar beet has never been greater, and UK sugar beet annual yields continue to rise. In 2005, when a yield average of 60t/ha seemed almost incredible, by 2009 the figure was 70t/ha, and in 2014 came within a whisker of 80t/ha. Annual yield variation is to be expected, but the underlying trend is definitely upwards. In contrast to combinable crops, sugar beet yields are now 60% higher than in the 1980s. In the most productive regions, growers are now budgeting on 90-100t/ha – and achieving these targets on a regular basis.
The contribution made by seed breeding and genetic improvement has played a large part in these yield trends. At least 1% of the annual beet productivity increase has been down to pure seed genetics. Add to this the benefits of seed processing technology; agronomic improvements, and precision farming techniques, and it is no surprise that beet yields continue to astound the agricultural community.
The efforts of the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) over many years in not only researching but also communicating and translating best knowledge into farm practice, is a model of technology transfer envied by all other crop sectors.
UK Sugar Beet: Entering a new dimension
The post-quota world represents a paradigm shift in the fortunes of sugar beet growers and processors alike, but this does not imply the end of an era. It is heartening to see the two main stakeholders – British Sugar and the National Farmers Union – working ever-closer together to secure their respective futures. In 2017, sugar beet growers can grow as much or as little of the crop as they choose; contract prices are set in advance, but are also linked to a one-way upward bonus scheme designed to reward growers if sugar market prices increase.
The future of the sugar beet crop may be hanging in the balance but it continues to deliver value for money in the arable rotation, and prospects for UK Sugar Beet remain favourable despite the challenges. I have no doubt that if Admiral Lord Nelson – Norfolk’s most famous son – were alive today, he would be putting his eye-glass to his blind eye, and saying “I see no ships…”
(Author’s Note: Nelson unwittingly catalysed the European beet sugar industry by blockading French ports at the battle of Trafalgar, denying them of their traditional imports of cane sugar, whereupon Napoleon instructed farmers to grow sugar from beets instead.)