Sugar beet growing in the UK will be wiped out for good if the European parliament’s plan for restricting the range of pesticides available to farmers makes it into law.

That is the conclusion of an impact assessment by the British Beet Research Organisation of the moves in Brussels to update the EU’s pesticides approvals process.

The report considered the impact of both the EU Commission’s plan to remove sprays that contain certain ingredients deemed “hazardous” to human health, and the version suggested by the European parliament last October, which adds more “cut-off criteria”.

“The commission’s proposals have a small effect on management, profitability and the environment, so long as a range of fungicides remains available to control diseases in the seed crop,” it says.

“By contrast, the parliament’s proposals would wipe out the UK sugar industry, because it would be too costly to grow dense stands of healthy, weed-free plants without today’s seed treatments and insecticides, none of which would be approved.”

Sugar beet lifting

Yields and margins will drop to unviable levels if sprays are withdrawn

Without seed treatments, farmers would have to revert to sowing large amounts of seed, then thin­ning the seedlings to leave a final stand of plants. “When this was practised pre-1965 it was difficult to get labour to do the job now it would be impossible,” says the report.

The parliament’s proposal would also leave only three of the nine herbicides now used to control broadleaf weeds. Competition in the crucial first six weeks post-emergence would devastate yields.

No insecticides would be approved under the parliament’s plan, principally because of the perceived threat to bees, even though they seldom visit beet fields. “In these conditions, the most damage would be from beet yellowing viruses, which are spread by aphids. These viruses reduce yield by as much as 50%,” says the report.

Such yield losses would have a severe impact on profitability. The BBRO estimates that, at a price of £26/t, gross margins would drop from today’s average of £648/ha to £537/ha under the commission’s proposal and just £215/ha under the parliament’s proposal.

“In 2006, fixed costs on general cropping farms in eastern England averaged £759/ha. With so few farmers prepared to produce beet for such a small margin, the UK sugar industry would close, unless beet and sugar prices could be raised substantially,” it concludes.