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Pesticide ban could threaten viability of East Anglia’s sugar beet industry, farmers told

Sugar beet in a field close to Cantley.

Picture: James Bass

Sugar beet in a field close to Cantley. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2014

The viability of East Anglia’s sugar beet industry could be undermined by disease threats and financial risks as a result of the blanket ban on a controversial pesticide.

Dr Mark Stevens of the British Beet Research Organisation in a sugar beet field. Picture: BBRODr Mark Stevens of the British Beet Research Organisation in a sugar beet field. Picture: BBRO

That was the message from sector experts speaking at the winter meeting of The Morley Agricultural Foundation at the Morley Business Centre, near Wymondham.

The topic under discussion was last year’s decision to extend the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides – already banned for flowering crops like oilseed rape due to concerns about their impact on bee health – to all outdoor crops, including sugar beet.

Dr Mark Stevens, head of science at the Norwich-based BBRO (British Beet Research Organisation), said this year’s crop would be the first in 25 years without the protection of seed treatments which were an effective defence against aphids carrying virus yellows – a disease capable of killing yields by as much as 47pc.

He said the insects are building resistance to the alternative pyrethroid sprays, which also run the risk of damaging beneficial insects in the countryside.

Award-winning farm advisor Jamie Gwatkin speaking at the Morley Agricultural Foundation's winter meeting. Picture: Chris HillAward-winning farm advisor Jamie Gwatkin speaking at the Morley Agricultural Foundation's winter meeting. Picture: Chris Hill

READ MORE: East Anglia’s sugar industry says EU pesticide ban will damage beet yields

Despite the efforts of scientists and plant breeders, Dr Stevens said it could take until 2023/24 for a virus-resistant beet variety to become available.

“The biggest threat that I think you will have is going back to the consequences of virus yellows,” he said. “It is a complex of three viruses, which provides many challenges and is very difficult to control. That is where the seed treatments provided an excellent targeted approach.

“You could argue that the success of neonicotinoids has starved innovation, because they have been so successful. Unfortunately there are few immediate solutions. This is where I get frustrated.

“Whatever your view on these products, the decision to remove them was very rapid, with few alternatives available, But we do need to find alternatives. We are going to need greater crop management and we are going to need to be more holistic approach with the range of tools available.”

Dr Stevens said the best “free natural pesticide” was cold weather, and this year’s crop would benefit from more cold nights like the -6 degrees recorded this week, to kill over-wintering aphids.

READ MORE: Beet harvester demonstration bring hundreds of farmers to Norfolk field

Meanwhile, award-winning farm business advisor Jamie Gwatkin analysed the financial effects of the neonicotinoid ban on sugar beet.

Using national and local data on farm performance, he calculated the average cost of sugar beet production is £17.98 per tonne, based on an average yield of 78.5 tonnes per hectare.

After factoring in the costs of pest control measures to mitigate against the neonicotinoid ban, that figure rose to £22.09 per tonne with “moderate” disease control – above the contract price given to beet growers.

“It is pretty bleak, but that is the reality,” he said. “In my opinion, the ban makes sugar beet more risky to grow, with a greater possibility of the cost of production exceeding contract price.

“We all need to wake up and understand that there is a significant risk to growing the crop, which could possibly make sugar beet unviable in the UK.”

Mr Gwatkin said another potential implication of spraying chemicals to replace seed treatments was the negative impact on “farmer PR”.

“All we are seen to be doing is going out spraying crops and killing everything, which is very negative for our farmer perception to the general public,” he said.

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