Beet Growers Resist EU’s Bee-Saving Initiative

European sugar beet producers are turning away from the crop, which could push prices even higher as the European Union’s environmental rules come into conflict with its desire to stem food inflation and secure supplies. .
Farmers are changing crops after the European Union’s highest court ruled in January that they could no longer benefit from exemptions from a ban on “neonics”, insecticides that protect against diseases such as viral yellows of sugar beets, but are toxic to bees and other pollinators essential to food production.

This decision, which the European Union and environmental groups consider essential for saving pollinators, some of which are currently threatened with extinction, led to a reduction in the areas devoted to sugar beet, while the crop yields are suffering, farmers and industry experts told Reuters.

“In our region, we lost 15% of the area devoted to sugar beets (this year),” said Alexandre Pelé, who has a 240-hectare farm in central France.

“I found it difficult to meet my volume commitments with the sugar factory because my yields fell significantly due to the neonicotinoid ban,” Mr Pele said.

With the European Union being the world’s third largest producer of sugar, a reduction in production could impact soaring global prices and thwart efforts to reduce food inflation.

“We have entered a new paradigm for sugar, low prices are a thing of the past,” said an analyst at one of the world’s largest sugar traders. “Global stocks are low, demand is increasing and supply is vulnerable around the world due to climate change and the difficulty of increasing production everywhere, particularly in Europe.

Sugar prices in the European Union have never been higher, around double the prices observed two years ago, partly due to increased dependence on expensive imports, while the local sugar sector is dwindling.

The European Commission expects sugar imports to have increased by around 60% in the current season. The European Union depends on imported sugar, mainly subject to customs duties, to cover around 15% of its needs.

Neonicotinoids were banned in Europe on non-flowering crops like sugar beet in 2018, but after an attack of viral yellows in 2020 that crushed production in France and Britain, EU member states granted temporary exemptions.

Since the January court ruling banning exemptions, the area devoted to sugar beet cultivation in France, the EU’s largest sugar producer, has reached its lowest level in 14 years.

The European Commission said it expected the area under beet cultivation across the European Union to be some 3% below the five-year average this year due to the shutdown. of the Court. According to EU data, the area devoted to beet in the EU has already fallen by 17% since the 2018 neonics order.

This drop in surface area led the world’s second largest sugar producer, Tereos, to close a factory in the north of France this year, leading to the loss of 123 jobs. Tereos said at the time that it expected to receive 10% fewer beets from farmers.

French producer Pelé said he had not yet reduced his sugar beet harvest due to investments he had already made, but that the yield on one of his plots had fallen by 45% this year.

One in ten species of bees and butterflies, essential to preserving biodiversity, are currently threatened with extinction, and environmental groups and the European Union attribute a large part of the blame to neonics.

“The harm of neonics to pollinators is undeniable. It is the most studied pesticide in human history, and we know very well how it works,” said Noa Simon Delso, scientific director of Beelife, a non-profit organization based in Brussels.

Several seed companies, including Germany’s KWS Saat, are working on new varieties of sugar beets that would be naturally resistant to viral yellows, but farmers say they will not be available before 2027.

“Consumers will need to understand that if more constraints are placed on agriculture, for good reasons or not, production costs will increase until we find other methods of growing these foods,” said Andrew Blenkiron , who runs a 7,000-acre farm in the east of England, which, thanks to Brexit, can use neonics this year.

He said he would give up growing beets if he couldn’t protect his crops.

“It’s a dilemma: producing food at a profitable price while ensuring good environmental protection,” he added.

The decline in the sugar beet sector could affect other staple crops, as farmers need to plant replacement crops like sugar beet or oilseeds in their wheat, barley and corn fields every two years. years to preserve soil health.

Oilseeds were one of the first crops targeted by the ban in late 2013, and rapeseed production has since fallen by 12%.

“If I lose a crop like sugar beet, it’s a question of agronomy (crop rotation), but also, because there are multiple weather threats these days, having several crops allows me to better manage risks,” Mr. Pele said. “If I ran out of sugar beets, it would be a real loss.

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