30 November 2001

DEFRAS WHITE FLAG TO RHIZOMANIA IS NOT JUST A BLOW FOR BEET GROWERS

Why is DEFRA surrendering in the war against the sugar beet disease rhizomania? Instead of fighting on to defend the UKs rhizomania-free status it has decided to concede the title.

The decision will prove a disaster, not just for sugar beet growers throughout the UK, but for many other producers. It is difficult to over-estimate the key contribution sugar beet has made to the profitability of many arable units.

Moreover, the halfway house of declaring Norfolk and Suffolk, where most of the disease occurs, a lost cause would spark unpoliceable problems for those marketing other root vegetables.

This is another disservice DEFRA has done British farmers. It should take urgent action to vigorously defend the countrys rhizo-free status, at least until a wider range of rhizo-tolerant UK sugar beet varieties becomes available.

Acknowledging that the disease is now widespread will release more money for import inspections after rhizo surveys are halted, claims DEFRA. But that is to deny the success of what has been achieved already. After all, the existing policy along with the NFUs compensation scheme and British Sugars quota transfer policy, has done much to contain the disease.

No one should forget that UK levels of rhizomania are the lowest in Europe. More worryingly, there is only one variety sufficiently tolerant to be considered when grown under UK conditions. If hygiene controls are abandoned and the disease is allowed to spread, over-relying on such a questionable defence is dangerous in the extreme. It could drastically reduce the industrys output leading to our country dropping down the European sugar production league. That is the last thing growers or British Sugar needs when negotiating quota allocation.

It is not too late for the government to rethink its rhizomania policy. Ultimately the rising tide of this devastating disease may be unstoppable. But let us retain all our defences at least until there are more tolerant varieties suitable for UK conditions.