Policy makers with the support of politicians navigated the EU sugar industry from one that was simply not globally competitive to one that is now. Even though the process was painful, with significant rationalisation, the sugar industry is now market-driven and capable of withstanding the attendant volatility in the market place. But the recent announcement of a ban on the use of neonicotinoids in the EU will probably reverse these advances in a single move.
Neonicotinoids are controversial pesticides that are harmful to wild bees and managed honey bees. They are often used to coat seeds. After the seed germinates, the plant protection product spreads throughout the growing plant systemically and guards it against insects feeding on the plant. It eventually reaches pollen and nectar, which is how pollinating bees are exposed.
In 2013, the European Commission restricted the use of three neonicotinoids—imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam—on flowering field crops such as corn, sunflower, and rapeseed. Sugar beet was previously exempt since it is classed as a non-flowering field crop. Following a review by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), an EU-funded independent scientific advisory body, the EU Commission Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (SCOPAFF) voted by a qualified majority on the 27th April 2018 to extend the ban to the use of these neonicotinoids on all outdoor crops – including sugar beet. The ban is binding in all member states. The sale and supply of these 3 neonicotinoids will cease by September 19, 2018, at the latest, with the sale, storage and use of seed treated ending on December 19, 2018, at the latest.
While sugar beet production does not involve flowering and thereby impacting bees directly, proponents of the ban claim that neonicotinoids in farm soil can spread via water or wind-blown dust to nearby ground, where these neonicotinoids can be absorbed by weeds and wildflowers. In its review, EFSA concluded that outdoor uses of any of the three pesticides caused a high risk to bees.
According to the British Beet Research Organization researcher, and Chair of the IIRB pest and disease group, Dr Mark Stevens, neonicotinoid seed-treatment affords protection to the crop for 14 weeks. In the UK, where neonics-treated seed is widely sown, in 2017, yield losses of up to £51 million were routinely prevented; impacting on crop profitability.
The three main targets for the neonicotinoid seed treatments are virus-carrying aphids; soil pests -such as wireworm and the soil pest complex; and the first generation of leaf miners. While pyrethroids used to be effective against aphids, development of widespread resistance against it means that there are now no effective foliar insecticides registered for use in sugar beet.
The main purpose of neonicotinoid seed treatments on sugar beet is to control aphids, particularly the peach potato aphid. The aphids themselves are not a significant problem, but they spread viruses including beet yellows virus (BYV), beet chlorosis virus (BChV) and beet mild yellowing virus (BMYV). It is the viruses, and particularly BYV that are of greatest concern as it can reduce sugar beet yields by up to 49%.
It is unclear how rapidly aphid and leaf miner populations will increase to exploit the lack of effective control, but the issue impacts on sugar beet growers in much of the EU28. Farming associations in the key beet sugar-producing countries that will be adversely impacted by the ban have expressed their consternation.
In what is shaping up to be a perfect storm for EU sugar beet farmers the same Standing Committee are planning to also restrict or remove other essential plant protection products from sugar beet growers armouries; including the fungicidal seed treatment Thiram which prevents damping off, and the herbicides Desmedipham and Phenmedipham which are the foundation of weed control programmes.
The expectation by politicians that more investment in plant breeding will solve these issues fails to recognise that breeders revenue is limited to income generated from seed sales, and the speed with which these quantum changes take effect is unlikely to allow time for breeders to adapt multiple new traits into breeding programmes.
One solution to accelerate natural, genetic solutions is the uptake of new breeding innovations within the EU; in turn, this is subject to an ECJ ruling on 25th July. In signalling the importance of finding innovative solutions to these problems George Freeman, a British Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk who until recently was the Teresa Mays policy adviser on biotech, hit out at Brussels and accused the EU of behaving with “regulatory hostility” towards biotech. Arguing that there exists an “anti-science” agenda in Brussels, he said: “The growing hostility of the EU to ‘biotech’ has had a hugely damaging effect on the EU Bioscience Economy over the last five years. “Just as the genomic revolution has been starting to offer untold opportunities across medicine and agriculture, the EU has been developing an increasingly hostile regulatory framework which has undermined Europe as a hub of biotechnology.”1
As beet growers in regions with relatively mild winters face yield reductions of between 10 and 50%, in the immediate future, the only hope for the industry is succession of super-cold winters to check the aphids. Oscar Wilde said that praying is a splendid privilege. Who would have thought that is industry’s only recourse at the moment.