Dry weather a worry as EU sugar beet harvest starts

HAMBURG (Reuters) - Dry weather in some major European Union sugar-producing regions is causing concern as beet harvesting starts, experts said on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: A sugar beet with its dries leaves is seen in a field, as extreme drought hits France, in Blecourt, France, September 18, 2019. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

A combination of low prices and restrictions on insecticide use has turned some farmers away from sugar.

EU refined sugar output in the season now starting could fall 3.6% on the year to 17.7 million tonnes, said Timothe Masson, economist at French sugar growers’ group CGB.

Global sugar prices hit their lowest in 10 years in late 2018 amid heavy global oversupply, and have only stabilized at depressed levels in this year.

EU market liberalization means European producers are no longer protected from world price falls and several European sugar refiners have announced capacity cuts.

In the EU’s largest producer, France, the beet harvest that started last week will likely fall to 37.7 million tonnes from 39.9 million tonnes in the previous season, below the five-year average, the CGB estimates

Severe summer weather with prolonged hot and dry spells is expected to have damaged yields, it said.

“The low yields are due to a lack of water at crucial moments for the plant,” said Masson.

French farmers planted 451,000 hectares, down from 480,000 hectares last year, the CGB said.

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In the second largest producer, Germany, farmers have cut sugar beet plantings by about 15,000 hectares from last season to 375,300 hectares, German sugar industry association WVZ estimates.

German farmers are suffering from bans on pesticides which have not been imposed by other European Union countries, said WVZ Chief Executive Guenter Tissen.

In the new season, 26.19 million tonnes of beets are expected to be harvested, up from 24.64 million tonnes last season when Germany’s sugar harvest suffered from a serious drought and heatwave.

Dryness is a also worry in Poland, said Rafal Strachota, director of Polish sugar beet growers’ association KZPBC.

Polish farmers have planted about 240,000 hectares, little changed from the last season, but only 13.7 million tonnes of beet are likely to be harvested versus 14.3 million a year before, he said.

“Drought in Poland for the second year in a row negatively affected sugar beet yields,” Strachota said. “This year, we anticipate an even lower average yield than last year, which should amount to 57 tonnes a hectare, 13% less than the average for the last five years.”

The first sugar factories began processing beets in Poland on Aug. 31.

In Britain, this season’s campaign got underway on Tuesday with the first beet deliveries to two of British Sugar’s four factories. All four will be open for deliveries by Oct. 1.

Sugar production is expected to be higher than the previous season with an improvement in yields offsetting a reduction in the planted area, British Sugar’s parent Associated British Foods said.

“After last year’s very poor yields, this year we anticipate yields coming in somewhere above average,” said Michael Sly, who chairs the sugar board of the National Farmers Union (NFU).

Sly said the planted area was expected to be just under 100,000 hectares, down 10 percent from the previous season.

Reporting by Michael Hogan in Hamburg, Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris and Nigel Hunt in London; editing by Jan Harvey and David Clarke