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What is left of the sugar beet sector in the UK could be wiped out for good if the European Parliament’s plan for restructing the range of pesticides available to farmers makes it into law, argues the British Beet Research Organisation. The Commission’s proposals would have a relatively small impact. ‘By contrast, the parliament’s peoposals would wipe out the UK sugar industry, because it would be too costly to grow dense stands of healthy, weed-free plants without today’s seed treatments and insecticides, none of which would have been approved.’

Without seed treatments, farmers would have to revert so sowing large amounts of seed, then thinning the seedlings to leave a final strand of plants. This is a labour intensive operation and it was difficult enough to secure the necessary labour when it was last done before 1965, but the research organisation thinks it would be impossible now. Certainly other sectors of British agriculture such as fruit growing have been hard hit this summer because of labour shortages after new restrictions were placed on migrant labour.

The Parliament’s proposal would leave only three of the nine herbicides now used to control broadleaf weeds. Competition in the crucial first six weeks post-emergence would devastate yields. No insecticides would be approved under the Parliament’s plan, principally because of the perceived threat to bees, even though they seldom visit beet fields.

The BBRO estimates that gross margins would drop from today’s average of £648/ha to £537/ha under the Commission’s proposal and just under £215/ha under the Parliament’s proposals. Fixed costs on general cropping farms in eastern England, which is the principal area of sugar beet production, averaged £759/ha in 2006.

Even though sugar beet has agronomic benefits in a rotation, at these margins the UK sugar industry would virtually disappear. A certain volume of production is needed to keep refining plants open.

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