Beet growers in the east can beat Brazil’s cane producers

The Norfolk Farming COnference at The John Innes Centre in Norwich.

The Norfolk Farming COnference at The John Innes Centre in Norwich. - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2013

Beet growers in eastern England were overtaking Brazil in the world sugar production league, said farmers' leader William Martin.

With the beet campaign finishing later this month, the region's 3,500 growers were expected to produce the third largest crop in six years and an average yield of more than 68 tonnes per hectare.

Fenland grower Mr Martin, chairman of the National Farmers' Union's sugar board since 2008, told about 250 delegates at the Norfolk Farming Conference, that beet yields has risen significantly in the past two decades. 'A few years ago, we would have average yields below Brazil, now we're alongside and we're on our way to overtake Brazil.

'In terms of sugar production per ha, beet has a better story to tell than cane over the last 15 to 20 years. We can hold our heads up against cane producers,' said Mr Martin, who farms about 1,000 acres at Littleport, near Ely.

'I was brought up to believe cane was better and beet was only grown in Europe because it was a protected market. That is no longer the case,' he said.

Mr Martin said removal of EU quotas from October 1, 2017 would create more competition. He said average yields in France and the Netherlands were higher, 75t and 80t ha. 'I think this probably an understatement because in France the national average of the last campaign was more likely 85t ha at 16pc – and similar in the Netherlands.

'We're probably going to end up fractionally over 68t ha. Equally within the UK, there are a lot of farmers operating at yield levels close to those harvested in the continent,' said Mr Martin.

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From 2017, there will be no restrictions on production and sale of white sugar for human consumption in the EU. 'We've got two more crops, after the one we're about to plant, under the current system.'

The NFU has secured the future for contractual arrangements, the IPA (inter professional arrangement) or collective negotiations. 'It is not a free for all,' he added.

While Europe had kept market management measures for 13.3m tonnes of sugar quota in 19 member states, imports and especially iso-glucose or maize starch (high-fructose corn syrup) would be a threat. The EU sugar reference price of E404.4 and a minimum beet price of E26.29 tonne would remain. 'You can't just bring any old sugar into the EU at any price,' said Mr Martin.

'We must not forget the potential of high-fructose corn syrup to take advantage of the European sweetener market. In north America, it has taken huge chunk of the soft drink market,' he said.

The industry – growers and processors – must be prepared to sacrifice some 'sacred cows,' he added.

n One Norfolk parish, Houghton St Giles, near Fakenham, has two sugar board members, newly-elected Andrew Ross and neighbour Mark Fletcher.