Why we need to tackle the Virus Yellows crisis in sugar beet

18 January 2021

Minette Batters

Minette Batters

Former NFU President

Following the government granting an emergency use authorisation for a neonicotinoid on the sugar beet crop in 2021, NFU President Minette Batters explains why this authorisation is necessary and what’s at stake if we cannot control pests on sugar beet this year.

Harvest last year was difficult for British farmers and growers, whether as a result of COVID-19, impacts of weather, or additional pest pressure.

For the 3,000 growers that have sugar beet, a non-flowering crop, as an integral part of their arable rotation, it has been the extreme impact of Virus Yellows disease that has caused yields to plummet, in some cases with losses of 80%.

This disease, brought into the sugar beet plant by aphids carrying the virus, essentially affects the plant photosynthesising and ultimately decreases sugar content. The earlier the infection, the greater the impact on yield.

Lower yields mean farmers are paid less and this is affecting the viability of many farm businesses.

Unfortunately, UK growers currently have no other way of controlling the aphids that cause this disease and there is no treatment for Virus Yellows once a crop is infected. The damage caused this year has forced many to question their future growing the crop.

Why does this matter? It matters because while people continue to enjoy sugar as part of a balanced diet, we should be looking to provide that from our homegrown sugar sector. Sugar beet growers in the UK currently produce half of the nation’s consumption of sugar, so many of the cakes and biscuits we all enjoy as a sweet treat are made using British sugar.

Farmers growing sugar beet in their rotation are proud of their sustainability credentials and they are absolutely committed to maintaining those, as well as looking to improve them where possible, while following some of the most stringent regulations anywhere.

Sugar beet is a valued crop for farmers in their rotation. It’s important for them to have sugar beet as an available option to vary the crops grown on a field each year, preventing the build-up of other pests and diseases.

Its farm to factory story is quite remarkable. Local farms in the East of England growing sugar beet are, on average, just 28 miles from one of the four factories where it is turned into the fine sugar granules we’re used to using in our baking and putting in our cups of tea.

If we don’t have a viable homegrown sugar sector as a result of the damage this disease causes, all of that could be lost and Britain will be forced to rely on imported beet and cane sugar, adding undue pressures on other parts of the world for our food needs.

Given 13 EU countries have approved a similar derogation this year, imported beet sugar will likely be treated with neonicotinoids. We have no control over how it, or cane sugar, is produced in other countries.

NFU Sugar applied for the emergency use of a specific neonicotinoid for this year’s sugar beet crop, because there is a crisis and there is no current alternative.

Growers have committed to only use it if the threat of Virus Yellows disease is severe enough. This decision will be made by data provided via the independent Rothamsted research organisation, using the longstanding and robust Virus Yellows forecast. This forecast predicts the virus levels, using weather data and existing information on the current number of aphids. The forecast is then used to predict the impact on yields and whether the neonicotinoid is required.

It’s also important to understand how this neonicotinoid works, if it is used. The product, Cruiser SB, is applied as a treatment to the sugar beet seed before it’s planted. It will be taken up by the plant as it grows and will provide the crop with protection from aphids and the Virus Yellows disease.

It would only be used on sugar beet seed, which is grown on roughly 100,000 hectares mainly in the East of England. Sugar beet is not a flowering crop. It is not attractive to bees and they will have no interest in coming into contact with the crop.

The NFU believes the science on bee health used to justify the ban on neonicotinoids remains unclear, so any resulting measures you use depend on the extent of your precautionary approach.

Growers have committed to not planting any flowering crops for nearly two years (22 months) after planting sugar beet treated with this neonicotinoid and the Defra Secretary of State has decided to put in additional measures preventing growers from planting oilseed rape for nearly three years after planting (32 months).

While this is a topic with polarised opinions, there is no doubt that this product is absolutely crucial this year to ensuring sugar beet isn’t decimated if disease levels are as high as they were last year.

It’s our hope that pest pressure this year is not as serious and that growers can continue to use integrated pest management plans to mitigate any threat, but it is so important that the option is there if necessary.

I know that growers, researchers and scientists alike are already working hard to find alternative ways of controlling Virus Yellows. In the meantime, we must ensure our British sugar beet sector is not sacrificed while that important work takes place.

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