ANYTHING OTHER than complete decoupling of the proposed beet single payment under reform of the sugar sector would be a potential disaster for UK beet growers, the National Farmers Union told farmers at yesterday’s (19 October) Beet UK event near Lincoln.

With the UK completely decoupled, NFU sugar beet chairman Mike Blacker said there was a risk that coupling the payment in other European Union Member States would place the UK at a disadvantage.

“The UK is third or fourth in the rank of efficiency,” he said. “Any coupled production would keep Member States still in the game who are inefficient.”

Mr Blacker restated the NFU’s call for the beet decoupled payment to be ring-fenced to beet growers and distributed according to contract tonnage, not beet area.

And he confirmed the NFU supported the principle of price cuts over quota cuts to achieve the required five million tonne sugar reduction in EU sugar production to bring the European market into balance.

In a question and answer session involving more than 350 growers, Mr Blacker and British Sugar director of agriculture, Karl Cater, agreed improved efficiency was essential to maintaining UK beet production.

Those gains would be made in the factory and through improved yields. A new initiative, the UK beet Yield Challenge, was announced.

“In three to five years’ time, I expect the majority of my beet to come from growers producing at least 70t/ha,” Mr Carter said.

Here are some of the points made in the question and answer session:

John Miller, a grower from Newark said: “The grower and producer partnership is the key to the future of the industry. The margin is going to come down and we need a fair slice of the cake. The grower carries a greater risk than the producer.”

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Mike Martin from Peterborough said: “Haulage is 20% of the cost [of producing beet]. Will British Sugar subsidise those growing further away from the factory?”

Karl Carter: “I’m not sure on what’s happening with transport allowances. But those on a high mileage may be at a disadvantage. We have to go for being efficient – we won’t be able to subsidise high mileages in the long term.”

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James Black from Suffolk explained: “The IPA needs to be looked at in how we can work together as growers more collaboratively.”

Karl Carter: “The concern I have is that the regime reform wants us to do things we don’t see a value for. But where there’s an opportunity to work on it [the IPA], it would be foolish not to do so.”

Mike Blacker: “We have to wait until reform is out of the way – we don’t have an IPA in place yet for the 2006 crop.”

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Robert Sturdy, MEP and Cambridgeshire farmer said: “The [parliamentary] decision on the reform proposals vote is in a fortnight’s time. If we reject the report from the Commission, that could cause a six-month delay.”

Mike Blacker: “We don’t want this [reform] prolonged any more than it has to be. If we get held up to January, then fine, but if we get to June, we’re into another year. We want to know where we’re going.”

Karl Carter: “We would like the restructuring [out-goers’ scheme] to start as soon as possible…the sooner the better to get the market sorted and get the EU industry on the right footing.”

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James Archer from York added: “Looking at the sugar regime in a world context, the two main producers will be Brazil and Australia. But Brazil is currently turning its sugar in ethanol [because of the energy crisis], and the Australians have concerns about sugar cane pesticides in the Barrier Reef. We have to be careful not to give up on our industry.”

Karl Carter: “Brazil has huge capacity. At the moment it’s converting it into bioethanol, so yes, we can’t be totally reliant on importing sugar into the EU. Needs to be some consideration for home production providing we can be efficient.”

Mike Blacker: “Food security and balance of payments seem to have gone out of the window. But any government that gives up on its own food production is an idiot. To lose our industry would be folly. We must keep producing but it has to be profitable.”