30 November 2001

DEFRA rhizomania plans steamroll sugar industry

By Andrew Blake

SUGAR beet growers, the NFU, British Sugar and scientists united this week to condemn the government view that rhizomania disease can no longer be contained.

DEFRA believes the country as a whole will inevitably lose its EU rhizomania-free status next Mar and has mailed all beet growers saying so. It is proposing three alternative strategies (see panel).

It points to this years sixty-nine new cases of the disease, mostly in Norfolk and Suffolk, as justification for its new stance. Money saved by axing the current policy could help bolster import controls, it adds.

But losing the UKs protected zone status will hit potato growers, horticultural producers and exporters, as well as the sugar beet industry, experts warn.

"We are extremely unhappy that DEFRA doesnt see continuing the protected zone status as an option," says Matt Twidale, NFU sugar beet committee chairman.

"It does seem that we could have had more discussion before they took this route."

Strict hygiene, the NFUs grower-funded compensation scheme and British Sugars quota transfer schemes have greatly minimised rhizos spread, he says. "The most realistic way forward is to continue our existing policy for another three years."

British Sugar agrees. "The containment policy introduced in 1987 has worked well. Less than 0.1% of the actual area on which beet is grown has been infected," says Peter Williams, head of business development.

"We are consulting our scientific and legal advisers before recommending to growers how they should best respond."

Norfolk grower Teddy Maufe says more time is needed to expand the choice of tolerant varieties. If not large areas could become dependent on Concept, the only recommended variety able to compete with top non-tolerant types.

Pathologist Mike Asher, who is based at IACR Brooms Barn research station in Suffolk agrees. "It looks as though DEFRA is getting over-excited about the numbers of outbreaks."

Only 1.2% of the total UK beet growing area has experienced rhizomania, he stresses. "That is far less than elsewhere in Europe. Nearly half the French crop and possibly 90% of the Netherlands area is infected.

"We are very frustrated at not being consulted. The whole country isnt ready to move into resistant varieties. We have only one option and it hasnt been fully tested."

DEFRAs proposals would hit other crop sectors too, stresses NFU potato specialist Lisa Patterson. Even if Norfolk and Suffolk were the only counties to lose protected status, seed potato growers there would face extra costs sending stocks elsewhere.

Ware potato and other root vegetable growers would also have to reduce the soil content of consignments sent beyond the two counties to less than 1%.

Beet agronomy specialist Philip Draycott says policing such a policy is impractical. "You could not operate such border controls." &#42

RHIZO REGULATIONS

&#8226 UK set to lose protected zone status.

&#8226 Industry at odds with DEFRA views.

&#8226 Knock-on effects for pots & veg.

&#8226 Too few tolerant UK beet varieties.

&#8226 DEFRA consulting on options.

RHIZO OPTIONS

DEFRA is proposing three ways forward:

1 Maintain protected zone in UK, outside Norfolk and Suffolk.

2 Drop protected zone status for whole country.

3 Retain protected zone for selected non-beet growing areas.

Details available at www.defra.gov.uk/planth/rhizo/htm. Consultation responses are being sought.

Which way now with beet? Crop for British Sugars flagship Wissington factory was heading in the opposite direction this week as the company tackled ongoing filtration problems (see p48). Meanwhile, the industry was united in its condemnation of DEFRAs unilateral decision to axe the rhizomania containment policy.