Frank O'Kelly Written by Frank O'Kelly

UK sugar beet harvest 2020: a hopeful first flourish

An encouraging start to this year’s UK sugar beet harvest has given growers hope after fears that Virus Yellows could result in low yields. Early predictions also suggest that an increase in planting area was a wise move, with unfavourable weather reducing growth since the spring. In this blog, we explore what this means for the UK sugar industry.

Why has it been an encouraging start?

A drought in spring resulted in a poor start to the year’s growing season, limiting important initial growth in the UK’s sugar beets, followed by slightly sporadic but generally fine summer weather. The season was already expected to be a difficult one as the European Union’s (EU) neonicotinoids ban continued, forcing growers to battle against Virus Yellows without the most effective defence mechanism available.

Early yields from the UK’s sugar beet harvest have surpassed expectations. 

Despite these challenging conditions, the harvest’s initial yields have been greater than expected and almost in line with the five year average per hectare for many of the UK’s 3000 strong growers. Foresight and experience mean that an additional 4000 hectares of beet were planted in preparation, largely to offset any potential losses from the continuing neonicotinoids ban.

July and August’s dry weather caused sugar development to reduce, resulting in the sugar content of the 2020/21 harvest being lower than the previous year. Although overall a lower yield and drop in white sugar production is expected, the beginning of the beet harvest has been far more positive than growers had anticipated when the drought hit earlier this year.

How does this compare to last year?

This time last year, initial liftings of the sugar beet harvest were showing signs of an excellent harvest that looked set to improve on the previous year. Those predictions proved to be true, as British growers saw an average increase of 9 tonnes/ha from the year before.

It is almost certain that sugar production for this year will be lower than in 2019, but this could be offset by the increase in planting area outlined above. After a season of drought was exacerbated by an unexpectedly dry summer, yield forecasts have had to be reduced.

What does this mean for the UK sugar industry?

We will not know the full yield of the harvest until it has been completed in spring next year. Current estimates are still higher than initially expected and spirits have been buoyed by the encouraging start of the harvest. Many growers use sugar beet as a rotation crop, so there may be some fluctuation in the area planted next year, especially with the potential of tariff free sugar imports in 2021 adding to the competition.

There was a fear that sugar prices would rise due to several factors, namely the effects of the global pandemic alongside more typical disruptions like poor weather and disease. For the UK sugar industry, COVID-19 resulted in staff shortages, delivery delays and unprecedented fluctuations in demand. Fortunately, the industry proved its resilience and the positive start to the harvest means prices are likely to remain stable as greater yields help to sustain supply.

A hike in online shopping, another result of the COVID-19 restrictions, has led to warehousing space coming into greater demand. This will have a direct impact on the UK sugar industry. Stockpiling imported sugar may become more difficult and expensive, which means that greater onus may be placed on increased homegrown beet sugar output.

Warehouses have been in greater demand in recent months, which means stockpiling imported cane sugar may not be a viable option. 

Ragus monitors the sugar beet harvest to assess the impact it may have for its customers. Contact a member of our customer services team on +44 (0)1753 575353 or sales@ragus.co.uk to complete your order today. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, follow Ragus on LinkedIn.