Features International Sugar Journal

EU 27 + UK sugar beet sector beset by production challenges in 2020/21

After the turmoil of MYs 2018/19 and 2019/20, MY 2020/21 was expected to mark a recovery for our sector and the end of a “transition”, as the European Commission characterised the years following the end of the EU quota regime. But that did not happen. Seven beet factories closed in the EU27 as from MY 2019/2020 and, following a decrease in beet acreage and very poor growing conditions, EU27+UK production has continued to decrease in MY 2020/21. In addition, EU27+UK average market price remains very low. The COVID-19 pandemic blew away any hope of a sound market recovery. This was exacerbated by the impact of Brexit on both EU27 and UK sugar beet industry. While the next MY 2021/22 remains challenging, the “no deal” scenario has fortunately been avoided, but the UK sugar trade policy and its new raw sugar Autonomous Tariff Quota (ATQ) of 260,000 t is a key issue to both sides of the Channel. The opening of this ATQ for raw sugar will undermine competition in the UK sugar market, especially for the EU27 and developing countries that have preferential access.

With the 2020/21 beet processing campaign coming to an end in Europe, it is worth stressing that for many producers, it has been relatively short. Compared to 2019, 2020 was average to disastrous: only a few countries maintained output at 5-year average. In many others, the beet production verged from poor to disastrous, largely catalysed by the ban on neonicotinoids use giving way to widespread virus yellows infestation. The most affected regions were in France, the UK, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany, as well as in Belgium.

France and the UK were badly affected. In France, the 2020/21 production decreased by 30% compared to the 2015-2019 average and the beet yield collapsed to 65t/ha, a level not seen since 2001. Individual fields in the most affected regions have recorded yield losses of well over 50% and in some extreme cases of 80%. Other countries recording significant yield decreases include Hungary, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Alternative solutions and products to the banned neonicotinoids, notably in France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany, mainly in the form of foliar applications, were undertaken but were simply not effective. Furthermore, these strategies led to higher costs (depending on the number of applications). The combination of reduced yields and higher input costs along with higher fixed costs for sugar manufacturers associated with shorter processing campaigns, mean that the beet sugar sector faces losses of hundreds of millions of Euros in 2020/21. This justifies the need for emergency authorizations to ensure the viability of sugar beet farms in affected countries. It is a relief, therefore, that the French and British governments, as well as some regional governments in Germany, finally accepted to grant emergency authorisations for the use of neonicotinoid seed treatment for the 2021 sugar beet crop. To date, 14 countries in Europe have granted such emergency authorisations for the coming season. However, the conditions attached to such use are very strict, notably in terms of succeeding crops in the rotation. Therefore, in some countries, only a limited acreage will be sown with such neonic-treated beet seed.

Research programmes on sugar beet production continue as growers need sustainable solutions. However, meaningful results are only expected in several years. This race against time and adverse conditions is taking place while the EU Commission announced in March 2020 its Green Deal and its ambitious plan and overall EU targets by 2030 in terms of use and risk of chemical pesticides, nutrient losses, use of fertilisers and minimum land under organic farming. This political and regulatory context is causing extreme unrest among many EU farmers. In the UK, the pressure on farmers is similar and the new UK regulatory framework will be closely followed. Sugar beet growers note that the impressive efforts already achieved in terms of environmental sustainability, as documented through the European Beet Sugar Sustainability Partnership (EUBSSP), have not been rewarded so far in terms of better added value. They consider any additional arbitrary targets and inappropriate timing will result in less environmental sustainability and jeopardize the economic sustainability of the sector. The current debate in the EU is and will be intensive and CIBE participates actively in this debate.


Elisabeth Lacoste

Director of CIBE (International Confederation of European Beet growers)

CIBE defends and represents the interests of beet growers vis-à-vis European Institutions and international organisations since 1927. CIBE is composed of national and regional associations from 18 European beet-producing countries.

These include growers from 14 EU countries (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, the Slovak Republic, Sweden) and growers from 3 non-EU countries (United Kingdom, Switzerland and Turkey).