Sugar beet variety battle cuts grower choice for 2020

Sugar beet seed breeder KWS has called for more sales competition in the UK, after failing to get a second herbicide-tolerant variety on the Recommended List this season.

Farmers Weekly understands the company lost an appeal to have KWS Breanna added to the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) sugar beet Recommended List for 2020 at a confidential hearing of the Recommended List (RL) appeals committee on Tuesday (21 January).

See also: Tips on establishing high-yielding sugar beet crops

The BBRO is a joint venture between British Sugar and NFU Sugar. The RL crop committee is made up of growers, British Sugar, independent agronomists, seed industry reps and BBRO scientists but British Sugar says there is no NFU or British Sugar representation on the appeals committee.

Growers are able to order beet seed only via British Sugar, with the exception this season of another herbicide-tolerant KWS variety, Smart Janninka. This will be sold alongside Bayer’s Conviso herbicide spray through Frontier, British Sugar’s sister company. Frontier is 50% owned by Associated British Foods, which bought British Sugar for £880m in 1990. 

Had Breanna made it on to the Recommended List, it would have been sold through rival agronomy and distribution firm Hutchinsons, increasing competition.

Supporting growers

KWS UK sugar beet country manager Ben Bishop refused to comment on the company’s negotiations, but said: “We are emphatically on the side of growers and fully support the desire for greater choice and competition in the UK.

“Innovation in breeding will help ensure sugar beet remains competitive for the benefit of all parties, and it is important that new varieties are accessible to growers if the challenges facing the crop are to be addressed.”

The company said it would continue to respect the protocols of the Recommended List system.

The herbicide-tolerant varieties represent a major shake-up for the sector, and are tipped to be hotly sought after as they will allow beet to be grown in fields that are currently too weed-infested to support the crop.

KWS also announced in November that growers of their older varieties will have the right this season to choose on their order form whether their seed is processed and pelleted by Germains Seed Technology or KWS.

Germains is a wholly owned subsidiary of British Sugar and had previously prepared all UK sugar beet seed for planting.

Speaking in November, Mr Bishop said: “We would have welcomed the opportunity to decide the price for our pelleted seed to growers, as it would not only extend choice, but also promote competition between all parties for the benefit of growers.”

Why is the sugar beet industry controlled by one company?

Sugar beet has been grown in Britain since the 1920s and, by 1928, there were 18 beet processing factories in operation.

In 1936, all of the processors were amalgamated into one company by an Act of parliament, which aimed to break British dependence on sugar cane from the colonies.

The government used the company to control UK sugar production by distributing an area quota to about 12,000 farmers and setting a price guarantee. It also had a shareholding in the company of just under 25%.

When the UK joined the EEC in 1973, sugar policy was set in Brussels. The government’s shares in British Sugar were sold off in 1981 to commodity trader S&W Berisford, which eventually acquired complete control of the company.

Tighter EEC restrictions on the import of cane sugar saw British Sugar grow its UK market share from 26% in 1973 to 52.5% in 1985, but lower guaranteed prices meant profitability in the sector fell.

Declining fortunes at Berisford saw a number of national and international firms vying to purchase British Sugar from the company.

This was eventually won by the Weston family’s Associated British Foods at the end of 1990, when it purchased British Sugar for £880m. It continues operating as the sole beet seed distributor and sugar beet buyer in the UK.

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