Sugar beet quotas must not end in 2015 for the British sugar beet industry to have the opportunity to take advantage of a potentially larger EU-produced sugar market, growers heard at the British Beet Research Organisation annual conference.

The last round of reforms had left the EU internal market short of sugar after the expected levels of imports had not materialised to compensate for the fall in exports driven by the reforms, said Martin Todd, managing director of LMC International.

Increases in sugar beet productivity and higher world sugar prices had combined to make beet sugar competitive against cane sugar imports, opening up the opportunity for EU producers to fill the gap, he suggested.

But for the UK beet industry to take advantage it needed quotas to remain in place after the 2015 reforms, said William Martin, chairman of the NFU sugar board.

“If quotas end in 2015, we in the UK will not be in the position to take advantage of that opportunity. After the last round of reform British Sugar closed factories, to leave a very efficient, concentrated industry, with factories that currently have no room to process any more beet. We can’t expand with our current infrastructure.”

That contrasted with France, which didn’t rationalise its industry to the same scale and where campaigns finish earlier, he said. “If quotas end in 2015, they can immediately increase production by just prolonging their campaigns a bit, and fill that gap in the European market before we have a chance to do so.”

By extending quotas to about 2020, UK growers and, more importantly, British Sugar, could make the investments required to produce more beet and be in a position to process it, he said.

“It is a simple message: give us more time and we can compete. We need to get that message home to DEFRA, because DEFRA, in the person of Jim Paice, are going round telling people that the UK thinks getting rid of quotas in 2015 would be just fine.

“On an ideological level it might be. But if he wants the UK industry to offer the growth, GDP, jobs and everything else they are worried about in the future, they need to give us time to make the investments so we can make the most of that opportunity.”

The NFU would be writing to growers in the next fortnight to encourage responses to the DEFRA consultation on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy, he said.

“Please help DEFRA to understand, and your MPs to make DEFRA understand, this is not a dead-duck industry, propped up by artificial protection.

“This is an industry that has invested in its future and has the potential to go on investing in its future, but needs the time to do so and needs DEFRA to support us in getting that time, rather than risk undermining our efforts at the final hurdle.”