THOUSANDS OF jobs associated with the UK sugar beet industry could be lost because of proposed EU reforms, a former farm minister has warned.

Gillian Shephard, MP for south-west Norfolk, told the House of Commons this week that proposals to cut the minimum beet price from £28/t to £18 over three years and reduce the EU production quota could spell disaster.

There was “deep anxiety” within the industry, Mrs Shephard told MPs.

As well as farmers losing income, the change would harm biodiversity because sugar beet was an important part of the crop pattern.

Mrs Shephard said 10,000 people in Norfolk and Suffolk depended on sugar beet for their employment.

Norfolk alone produced one-third of a UK sugar beet crop which was worth £100m annually.

Mrs Shephard, who accused the government of responsibility for a slump in the country‘s farm industry, said: “Given agriculture‘s already parlous state, small wonder that so much despair surrounds the future prospects for sugar beet, especially in areas such as Norfolk, where so many jobs depend on its presence.”

The UK was the EU‘s third most efficient sugar beet producer and, even in the most difficult years for farmers, the staple crop had proved to be reliable.

All this was now threatened by proposals which, while they were aimed at giving much-needed help to the African Caribbean and Pacific groups of countries, could end up benefiting Brazil, where sugar production had been linked with slave labour.

The exploitation of Portuguese and workers of other nationalities in East
Anglia had been stamped out by the government via the Gangmasters Licensing Act earlier this year.

“It will be a bit ironic if the end result of what appears to be being planned in the EU increases slave labour in a country where there is even more vulnerability,” Mrs Shephard said.

She called on the government to further examine the implications of the proposed changes and produce some strategic thinking on the future of farming.

This should include encouragement of the “world class” expertise of scientists, such as those at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, in finding other uses for sugar beet, possibly in the production of biofuels.