Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Wednesday 18 July 2018

Sugar coating? Mixed response to possible revival of sugar beet industry

A proposal to revive the sugar beet industry has drawn a mixed response from the tillage sector

The viability of beet production in Ireland has been questioned
The viability of beet production in Ireland has been questioned
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

Could a revival of the once-buoyant sugar beet industry really be a catalyst for an upturn in the fortunes of the tillage sector?

Among the recommendations in the Oireachtas report on the future of the tillage sector is one calling for a review of potential opportunities in the sugar beet industry.

It recommends a review of the sugar beet industry in line with the findings of the Tillage Sector Plan 2012 and also emphasises the potential of homegrown sugar beet for poitín production. The 2012 plan found investor and grower interest was high in establishing a sugar beet industry based on bio-ethanol production. Sugar quotas were since abolished in October under the CAP 2015 reform and now Beet Ireland are calling on the government to "step up" as there are no longer barriers to production."

Fine Gael TD Pat Deering, chairman of the joint committee on agriculture which produced the latest tillage blueprint, said that reviving the sugar beet industry would be a "challenge" but not an insurmountable one.

"There's been a lot of discussion about it and enthusiasm to see it come back. I would love to see it back. I do think we need to look at the situation. We recommend that a new visibility study be done as the work that has been done is five years old," he said.

"We're starting from a very low base, there's no industry or facilities at the moment but the demise of the tillage sector arrived with the end of the beet sector. It would be a huge help. It's worth another look at to see where it is at the moment."

However, the report highlights how returning to intensive beet production in Ireland, which came to a halt in 2006, would be "severely hampered" by beet producers.

The majority of EU sugar production is used domestically with only about 8pc being exported.

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The report acknowledges that it is "unlikely that Irish sugar could be produced and exported cost effectively" given the number of EU competitors.

It also suggests that EU production is likely to increase by about 20pc in 2017/18, this would drive sugar prices downwards and leave Ireland "at a further competitive disadvantage." IFA tillage chairman Liam Dunne questioned the viability of beet production in Ireland in a climate where a sugar tax is due to be introduced in April 2018. "If it's viable we would whole heartedly support beet production, but any figures we see so far seem to question that viability. A Sugar Tax would make it difficult to bring back the industry without serious support from somewhere."

Spin-off

"It would be a very different industry to what we had. The basis of the industry is still there. It can be redeveloped, I'm just not sure if the figures add up. Simple, practical things seem to be missing from the report,"he said.

However, committee member and Sinn Fein TD Martin Kenny told the Farming Independent that rebuilding beet production in Ireland is "not just about profitability", it's about creating spin-off employment in rural Ireland and increasing the viability of tillage farmers.

Meanwhile, the first recommendation in the report called for the Department of Agriculture to analyse the potential for implementing an agricultural insurance scheme. Committee member, Fianna Fail TD Charlie McConalogue explained the scheme would help farmers who have experienced a "bad year".

"Crop insurance is an aspect in France. It should be looked at. We would have to be careful at how funding is used because direct payments are important but there does need to be some mechanism there that insures farmers against bad years."

In terms of climate change, the committee recommended that brewers and distillers use Irish raw materials as much as possible in order to reduce our carbon footprint and meet EU targets.

The committee agreed that the drinks industry would have to give fairer prices to farmers to ensure survival of the tillage sector.

"At the end of the day it comes down to price," said committee member Senator Paul Daly. "The drinks industry needs to help farmers. There aren't always going to be handouts from Ag house."

The report outlines that a special Fair Trade logo be introduced where brewers would have to pay a slightly higher price per tonne to show their support for Irish farmers.

Bobby Miller of the Irish Grain Growers Group said this aspect of the report was a "vindication" of its campaign to receive at least €200 per tonne of malting barley. He said they'd return to protest outside the Guinness Storehouse next Monday, at 11.30am unless changes were made this week to malting barley prices.

'We need actions rather than recommendations'

HELEN HARRIS

The biggest threat to the tillage sector, apart from prices, is regulations. Whether that is on farm or at European level.

We have seen it recently with the glyphosate debate. We will see more of this when other chemical products come up for renewal. We also have the same when it comes to farming on the ground.

The debate is becoming more about environmental impact, of how we farm. I understand the need to protect the environment but we also need to understand that this should not come at a financial cost to farmers. If science has proven that we are farming in a safe way to both humans and the environment, shouldn't that be enough. When did we stop trusting science?

Helen Harris is a tillage farmer based in Co Laois

PAT MINNOCK

The report is very welcome and continues to shine a very much needed light on the tillage industry in Ireland which at best is struggling. I would be concerned, however, that this is yet another report to be filed away to gather dust similar to the efforts made earlier in the year by the minister in relation to the Tillage Forum which, it must be said, is very disappointing that there has been no follow up or outcomes.

However, the report does fail to call on relevant authorities to address a major issue facing the tillage industry, which is the failure to treat imported feedstuffs in the same manner as native grain is tested and treated. It would improve the lot of tillage farmers if incentives were provided or advertising could focus on ration containing only native grain.

Rations containing genetically modified products or even imported grains produced using sludges could be down priced. A premium price for rations and therefore higher price for native grain would then be forthcoming.

I believe there is a future for tillage growing in the country but many of the recommendations in this report need to be acted upon now and not in the future.

Pat Minnock is a consultant and member of the ACA and the ITCA


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