9 June 1995

Eight in 10 fields have seed from only one company…

One breeder dominates the UK sugar beet market and has no qualms about it. Another believes it is bad for the industry. Robert Harris listened to both

LAST year, more than eight in 10 sugar beet fields were planted with seed bred by Hilleshög.

If that continues much longer, other breeders will switch to more lucrative foreign markets, restricting variety choice. With fewer genes in the national crop, the risk of a disease epidemic is significantly increased.

So says Bram van der Have, technical manager for Zeneca Seeds, Docking, Norfolk. He believes growers should grow more varieties from different seed houses to stop that happening.

"If somebody dominates a market, other players have less income. If nothing changes then they will be forced out."

That holds for the sugar beet industry as much as any other. In the short term breeders can weather the storm, he admits. But Hilleshög has been at the top for several years, and with three varieties up for recommendation next year, it seems strong.

Other breeders will survive thanks to better European market share. "But how many will continue to invest in selecting varieties for the UK market is open to question," says Mr van der Have. "We need two or three breeders to be strong in the UK to stop that happening."

More problems

Without that competition, diseases like powdery mildew, ramularia, rusts and perhaps lesser-known ones like cercospora leaf spot could be more of a problem, he maintains.

Breeders tend to stick with successful gene pools, so their varieties are closely related. That makes them vulnerable to disease, he says. "Its better to have different gene pools to provide the farmer with longer-term disease resistance."

That is not happening here, he explains. "I dont know for sure, but looking at Hilleshög material in the field, their varieties look pretty similar."

Real dangers

Mr van der Have points out that sugar beet is more resistant to disease than some other crops, as each variety consists of a population rather than distinct individuals, giving a good genetic spread.

But the dangers are real, he maintains. "There may be slightly less risk than with cereals, but we are talking about one company having a much larger market share."

He admits farmers will only switch to other breeders varieties if they match the best. But he reckons some new ones do just that.