Beet growers ‘devastated’ by tariff-free sugar cane extension

The government’s decision to extend its 260,000t tariff-free quota for raw cane sugar imports for another three years is “devastating news” for UK beet growers, the NFU has said.

Michael Sly, chairman of NFU Sugar, said the extension would continue to allow imports of sugar produced to lower environmental standards in ways that would be illegal in the UK.

The move, along with the complete liberalisation of sugar after eight years in the UK-Australia trade deal, could lead to the permanent decline of the UK sugar beet industry, he warned.

See also: Anger as British Sugar refuses to top up haulage allowance

“It is shocking that the government has decided to extend this quota, which quite clearly undercuts efficient UK growers,” said Mr Sly, who farms in 1,600ha in the fens of north Cambridgeshire and south Lincolnshire, growing sugar beet as well as combinable crops, peas and mustard. 

“The government’s claim that the quota will have no impact on UK growers is clearly wrong – which is highlighted in its own policy, which says the quota ‘allows the importation of food products that have been treated with pesticides containing active substances that have not been approved for that use domestically’.”

The UK sugar beet industry is one of the most efficient in the world and involves 3,000 growers, producing 100,000ha each year to supply about half the UK’s demand for sugar. It also supports 9,500 jobs in the wider economy.

Michael Sly in a field of beet

Michael Sly © NFU Sugar

“This is something we should be proud of and looking to enhance as part of our focus on food security in the years to come, to make us less reliant on imports,” Mr Sly noted.

“If we are to do that, the government’s trade policy must allow us to compete on a level playing field with growers elsewhere.”

No evidence

Mr Sly said it was “incredibly concerning” that the government had claimed its decision to extend the sugar cane quota was based on evidence – yet none had been published.

“Growers will be left to assume it is the same inconsistent and contradictory justification that was used when the quota was introduced a year ago,” he added.

The first year of the quota has seen more than 250,000t imported, according to HM Revenue and Customs, representing 97% of the 260,000t quota.

Sugar imports from Brazil alone have increased by 217% year-on-year – which NFU Sugar said was a clear example of a country taking advantage of this quota to increase its sales to the UK.

American-owned Tate & Lyle is the only company that imports and refines raw cane sugar in the UK.

A spokesman for the Department for International Trade said: “The UK’s highly competitive sugar sector is one of the best in the world and our analysis indicates this tariff-free quota should not negatively impact UK beet sugar growers.

“The proposed extension will support UK raw cane sugar refining capacity and promote consumer choice and competition in the UK sugar market.

“All imported food is required to meet the UK’s high food standards, overseen by the Food Standards Agency.”

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