Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Farmers' Link (O60)

  1.  Farmers' Link is an independent non-profit company, part funded by DG Development, with the aim to promote awareness of sustainable agriculture and rural development issues among the farming and rural community. Working across Eastern England, it is guided by five directors—three farmers, a soil specialist and an agricultural journalist.

  2.  In January 2002, at the time of the EBA proposals, Farmers' Link organised a conference to inform British farmers of the circumstances facing sugar producers in ACP, LDC and Cairns group countries. Conference speakers included representatives from each of those sectors, from Oxfam, and from Defra. (Andrew Kuyk—head of arable crops division.)

  In October 2003, our quarterly SARD meeting (Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development) discussed the subject of sugar regime reform, with presentations from Mike Blacker and Helen Kirkman from the NFU, and from British Sugar, to an audience of farmers, agronomists and beet research scientists.

  Farmers' Link has also contributed to a recent "Seminar on Sugar" arranged by the East of England Churches Network.


  3.  In response to the Defra consultation on Reform of the Sugar Regime, Farmers' Link favoured the first of the three options, to keep intact the current regime while providing for some quota loss and price cuts. This is the option that will maintain a stable market for sugar from domestic beet growers and developing country cane suppliers. Either of the more radical reform options will undermine this market and cause serious damage to the fragile economies of the ACP and Least Developed Countries in favour of a small group of large-scale producers, especially Brazil where the environmental impact of production methods raise serious concern.

  This conclusion is based on reasons of food security, rural economy, and the environment and maintenance of natural resources.

Food security

  4.  Increasingly agricultural policy in the UK seems to ignore the subject of food security. Farmers' Link strongly believes it essential for all countries to maintain a sensible level of own food production. With regard to sugar the case is clear. The UK does not produce surplus sugar; in fact it only produces 50% of consumption. Whilst there is a surplus produced within Europe, and the subsidised export of this is an issue, quota cuts to address this should not be directed at the UK. A better mechanism should be sought to prevent the production of unwanted "C" beet in the UK, with a grower-funded scheme to allow this surplus to be carried forward to the next season.

  5.  In addition, UK produced sugar is "local produce", meeting the demands of consumers. The average sugar mile for domestic production in the UK is about 130 miles, compared to between 4,000 and 12,000 for most import sources.

Contribution to the rural economy

  6.  Sugar-beet production is of great importance to the rural economy of the UK. It is presently grown on around 7,000 farms, contributing to on-farm employment and to profitability. Beyond the farm gate the crop is important to businesses involved in haulage, the supply of farm inputs, to manufacture and repair of machinery, and obviously in sugar processing. It is estimated that sugar production employs approximately 20,000 people throughout the UK.

  7.  The contribution to the economy of developing countries is possibly even greater. The United Nations Millennium Declaration of September 2000 resolved to eradicate poverty and hunger; to achieve universal primary education; to combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases; and ensure environmental sustainability. Sugar production in LDC countries acts as a driver to achieving all these targets. In Zambia, for example, the civil infrastructure usually provided by the state is being provided by the sugar industries, improving water and sanitation, roads, and providing reliable employment.

Environment and natural resources

  8.  Sugar beet is an important part of the rotation for all growers in this country. Aside from its contribution to income, it fulfils many aspects of good farming practice. Its cultivation reduces disease and pest levels in the rotation. It allows a varied approach to weed control, and generally makes a positive contribution to soil fertility. Soil structure generally benefits from beet, provided poor conditions are avoided during harvest, and new techniques of minimal cultivation will further help to avoid soil erosion and compaction.

  9.  Fertiliser and pesticide treatments in sugar beet are now at a relatively low level. Low-dosage herbicides and seed-treated insecticides are examples of this, insecticide use has reduced by over 95% since 1982, and nitrogen usage reduced by 33% since 1970. Nitrate leaching during the growth of a beet crop is negligible, most soils containing less than 10kg/ha at the end of the season.

  10.  A recent study by Brooms Barn showed sugar beet to be a very energy-efficient crop, using a similar amount of energy to grow as a wheat crop, but yielding much more. Total energy inputs average 20.4 GJ/ha at the factory gate, with an output of 150-220GJ/ha, ie a positive ratio of between six and 13. This makes it a potentially good for the production of biofuels, a completely new market to complement the existing food and drink demand. The beet processing infrastructure in England is very efficient, and well-placed to meet this biofuel potential, and requires encouragement to do so, not obstruction.

  11.  Strict assurance protocols now apply to the production of sugar in the UK, and the use of the Little Red Tractor symbol on sugar products gives the consumer an indication of quality procedures.

  Production of organic sugar in the UK started in 2002, and has increased to 20,000 tonnes to meet growing demand.

  12.  Sugar beet offers significant benefit to wildlife diversity, especially to farmland birds. Over winter a variety of habitats are created on stubble fields prior to the beet crop, and beet fields provide an important source of feed for birds during autumn and winter. In spring the crop provides nesting sites for species such as skylarks and stone curlews.

  The removal of the beet crop from the rotations of existing UK growers will almost certainly result in a further increase of autumn-sown crops, either more cereals, or break-crops such as oilseed rape or beans. All of these changes will exacerbate the pressure on wildlife habitat.

Stability of price and supply, and impact on ACP and LDC producers

  13.  The second and third options to the Defra consultation result in marked price reduction, the second by at least 40%, the third by more, but both will have an immediate negative impact on grower incomes. It is claimed this will improve the balance between supply and demand, but will also introduce a greater insecurity and volatility to supply. It is also claimed to result in lower prices to the consumer, whereas in fact the main beneficiaries will be large industrial users. Thirdly, these options claim to maintain preferential access to the European market, but with no price preference this access will be worthless.

  14.  The Sugar Protocol, the SPS agreements and the Cotonou agreement all cover trade for sugar from ACP countries, whilst the EBA initiative describes access to sugar from LDC countries. The reform options that result in substantial price reduction will undermine all these agreements, and would not encourage investment or deliver development benefits to the LDC's. The preferred option for both ACP and LDC countries is a return to fixed quotas, which the EU ISG Impact Assessment states will protect from fluctuation in supply, will benefit rural communities and will reduce budget costs.


  15.  In response to the Defra consultation for reform of the Sugar Regime, Farmers' Link believes a managed market to be preferable to a "free for all" price-cutting policy. The UK beet sugar industry is efficient and innovative, and is best served by the stable market option. This would involve some reductions in price and quota, and could include the provision of fixed quotas for ACP and LDC's. It would signal a positive future to a sustainable European beet industry, whilst honouring long-term obligations to ACP countries and new ones to the LDC's.

1 April 2004

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