East Anglia’s sugar beet farmers fear an “unjustified and unnecessary” new zero-tariff quota on imported cane sugar could expose them to unfair competition from less-regulated overseas growers.

Eastern Daily Press: Norfolk sugar beet being unloaded at the British Sugar factory at Cantley. Picture: James BassNorfolk sugar beet being unloaded at the British Sugar factory at Cantley. Picture: James Bass (Image: Archant Norfolk © 2015)

About half of the sugar consumed in the UK is made from beet, grown mainly across East Anglia and the East Midlands and processed at British Sugar’s four factories in Cantley near Acle, Wissington in west Norfolk, Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and Newark in Nottinghamshire.

The other half is made from sugar cane grown in tropical or sub-tropical nations, some of which are already offered concessions to support trade in the poorest, least developed countries.

But on top of that, the government has announced the introduction of a new zero-tariff, 260,0000-tonne Autonomous Tariff Quota (ATQ) for raw sugar coming into the UK from January 1, 2021.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) says this will open the doors for raw sugar grown anywhere in the world, often produced with the help of state support or using chemicals and crop breeding technologies that are banned in this country for environmental reasons.

Eastern Daily Press: Sugar beet being harvested in Norfolk. The crop produces about half of the sugar consumed in the UK. Picture: Ian BurtSugar beet being harvested in Norfolk. The crop produces about half of the sugar consumed in the UK. Picture: Ian Burt

It says the post-Brexit tariff quota will “distort competition in the sugar market and lead to unfair competition for UK growers”, whose margins are already under pressure following the end of EU quota system and the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides which were previously used to protect their crops from virus-carrying aphids.

NFU Sugar board chairman Michael Sly, who farms in the Fens, said: “The UK government’s new zero-tariff raw sugar quota is highly concerning, unjustified and unnecessary.

“British sugar beet growers are some of the most efficient in the world but allowing tariff-free access to sugar from any country, produced in ways that would be illegal in the UK, will simply undercut UK growers and the standards they produce to. This quota system will also undermine the existing preferential access granted to developing countries.

“We believe the government should urgently review this tariff and ensure that any imports under this tariff-free quota are produced to the same standards required of our growers.”

Eastern Daily Press: The British Sugar factory at Cantley. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe British Sugar factory at Cantley. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY (Image: Archant)

READ MORE: ‘Weather extremes are now the norm’ – farmer reflects on his worst wheat harvestNorfolk farmer Tony Bambridge, chairman of the NFU’s regional board for East Anglia, added: “What the government has decided, for some unusual reason, is to allow this significant tonnage to come into the UK under a tariff-free sugar quota from anywhere in the world, and there is no control over how it is produced. It could be produced using labour exploitation or pesticide products that are illegal in the UK. We are baffled as to why they would decide to do this.

“We are talking about 260,000 tonnes of sugar, which is equivalent to a quarter of UK production. Can you imagine if we lost a quarter of our production? That would be like losing one of the four sugar factories, so it is not just going to affect a couple of farmers, it is a whole supply chain.”

British-grown sugar is marketed in the UK as Silver Spoon, while imported cane sugar is sold under the brand of Tate & Lyle – the Brexit-backing, American-owned firm which is the country’s only importer of raw cane sugar and stands to benefit from a £72.8m saving under the new tariff-free quota, according to analysis by Greenpeace’s Unearthed investigations team.

Earlier this month, Greenpeace described it as “a sweet deal for a food giant with close ties to the Conservative party”, but Gerald Mason, senior vice president of Tate & Lyle Sugars, said it was “a complete fantasy” that the firm wanted to import cheap, poorly-produced sugar – adding that the tariff-free quota would actually begin to level the playing field after years of EU protection for sugar beet producers.

“The logic that it’s Tate and Lyle’s quota is just wrong,” he said. “Anybody can import [raw cane sugar]. Anybody can refine it if they want to get into the industry.

“What it will do is allow us to buy from some extra countries that we can’t buy from today. It’s not a cash subsidy.”

READ MORE: Farmers race to harvest peas wilting in the heatwaveA spokesman for the Department for International Trade said the UK Global Tariff schedule is “tailored to the UK economy and designed to back British businesses, ensuring they compete on fair terms with the rest of the world.”

He said: “The government has sought to balance strategic trade objectives, such as the delivery of the UK’s trade ambitions and FTA [Free Trade Agreement] trade agenda and the interests of domestic production, processing and consumption, whilst maintaining the government’s commitment to developing countries to reduce poverty through trade.

“To achieve this balance, the UK Global Tariff retains tariffs on sugar products, while opening a new Autonomous Tariff Quota to ensure that supply is maintained while protecting developing country preferences. The government has always been clear that this ATQ will be reviewed in line with the UK’s suspensions policy in due course.”