Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the British Sugar Beet Seed Producers Association (O41)

  The British Sugar Beet Seed Producers Association (BSBSPA) is the representative body for the sugar beet seed production and supply industry in the UK, which has an estimated annual value of £13 million.

  The association has seven members who are either UK plant breeders and seed producers or are representatives of the major European based companies.


  The Association supports Option 1 of the EU proposals for reform of the sugar regime.

  The maintenance of a managed supply and value chain for sugar from Europe, African, Caribbean and lesser-developed countries will help to sustain the continued investment in sugar beet breeding programmes. It will support current progress achieved by the sugar beet breeding companies and help them respond to the future challenges of sugar production from beet. The development of new, improved sugar beet varieties is fundamental to the continued improvement in UK beet sugar productivity. The UK sugar industry delivers the highest possible efficiency of production with a minimum impact on the environment. This safeguards supply, quality and environmental integrity for the UK consumer.


  1.  Sugar beet breeding companies currently re-invest around 20% of turnover in the research and development of new varieties.

  2.  The advances in genetic potential delivered via new improved varieties have made a major contribution to UK beet sugar productivity. Productivity has doubled since 1991-92, making it one of the most efficient sugar industries in Europe.

  3.  This success has come with a built-in penalty for the sugar beet seed companies. As sugar productivity increases, so the land area needed to fulfil the UK sugar contract inevitably decreases. As result, the market for sugar beet seed in UK has fallen from 225,000 units of seed to grow the UK crop in 1991 to 164,000 units in 2004.

  4.  The subsequent reduction in turnover from seed sales has also eroded the investment available to support R & D programmes.

  5.  The maintenance of a stable UK and European beet sugar industry will help ensure the retention of an estimated 20,000 jobs in the UK, which includes those involved in the seed industry.


  6.  Recent reductions in the numbers of pesticide active ingredients available for use on the sugar beet crop brings into focus the pressure placed on the breeders to produce varieties with genetic resistance to the pests and diseases specifically affecting the UK crop. This situation is compounded by the lack of new active ingredients being introduced by the agrochemical companies due to high registration costs.

  7.  In 1987, Necrotic Yellow Vein Virus (rhizomania) was first found in UK. To date, the only control method for this disease is to grow varieties with genetic resistance. Under UK conditions and in the presence of the disease, current resistant varieties can produce yields equal to the susceptible commercial varieties. Under rhizomania infected conditions, susceptible varieties could suffer a yield reduction of 50% or greater.

  8.  In the future, the breeder will be asked to incorporate resistances to a range of pests and diseases, which may include:

    —  Viral diseases.

    —  Nematodes.

    —  Fungal diseases.

  9.  Sugar beet is already very efficient at utilising available soil moisture. It uses only 50% of the water needed to produce a kilogram of sugar from sugar cane. Water management and conservation will become more critical, particularly if the effects of greenhouse gasses are sustained. Selection for drought tolerance is already an integral part of some breeding programmes.

  10.  As a spring-sown crop, UK sugar beet makes a positive contribution to biodiversity. It offers a unique habit to wildlife in an environment dominated by winter sown wheat crops.

  11.  Sugar produced from UK grown beet travels significantly fewer "food miles" from grower to domestic consumer than imported cane sugar.

  12.  While not yet accepted for commercial use in the UK, GM technology will offer a more rapid response to specific agronomic problems by halving the time to develop and introduce new varieties.

  13.  The use of GM technology, when managed sympathetically, will also produce significant benefits to biodiversity through the use of varieties resistant to more environmentally friendly active ingredients than are currently being applied to standard varieties.


  14.  Allied to new genetic disease resistance, GM technology could offer a cost benefit in crop production.

  15.  Currently, all new sugar beet varieties complete two years in UK run statutory trials in order to establish an improvement over existing varieties under UK conditions. If they meet the required standard, they are accepted onto the National List of Sugar Beet Varieties and can then be commercialised. If the area of sugar beet grown in the UK further declines, it may reach the point where the cost of such UK trials is deemed unacceptably high. The breeders will then no longer use the UK National List system. They will use the legitimate alternative of the EC Common Catalogue of varieties in order to market their varieties in the UK.

  16.  Further loss of volume of the UK sugar beet seed market would result in reduction in the number of breeders and the loss of their gene pools. Also, importantly, competition effects would diminish as probably only the largest companies will survive.

  17.  The loss of gene pools and breeding activities could lead to stagnation in genetic productivity with the inevitable "knock on" effect to the sugar industry.

  18.  Sugar, being a hydrocarbon, can be adapted to allow the production of other products such as bio-ethanol for green fuel. This is potentially a whole new environmentally friendly industry, which will need ever increasing efficiency through sustained plant breeding.

  19.  The UK beet sugar production chain, including sugar beet seed, is subject to very high food manufacturing standards and environmental safety regulations, audits and controls. This provides the UK with a quality product that can meet all the requirements of modern food consumers.

30 March 2004

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