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In gloomy mood, Europe's farmers cut back sugar beet sowings

PARIS (Reuters) - Gloomy European sugar beet farmers are cutting back plantings this year, discouraged by poor yields and low prices.

FILE PHOTO: A pile of harvested sugar beets is pictured in Hem-Lenglet, France, October 5, 2020. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Production has fallen in the European Union, mainly pressured by a slump in prices, since an initial bounce when the bloc dropped its sugar production and export quotas in 2017.

A combination of drought and pest attacks that spread the virus yellows disease led to one of the worst sugar beet harvests in history last year.

This year, French farmers are expected to plant about 6% less sugar beet than in 2020 at 400,000 hectares, Timothe Masson, agronomist at French sugar beet group CGB said.

“The main reason for the fall is economical: farmers are not motivated to grow sugar beet anymore,” he said, adding that most of them had lost money last year.

In Poland, the EU’s third largest sugar producer, sowing had not started yet with cold weather causing a slight delay compared to last year, said Rafal Strachota, director of Polish beet growers’ association KZPBC.

“We predict a slight decrease in the area sown with this crop in 2021,” he said. He did not give details of the area expected to be sown, but said some farmers had turned to other spring crops.

“After a very difficult year, with a record low sugar content in beets, the mood among farmers is not optimistic.”

The fall in area in France came despite the government allowing farmers to use pesticides known as neonicotinoids, initially banned to protect bees, for another three years to curb virus yellows.

About half of the area was expected to have been sown by early next week, Masson said. This was a about a week later than average due to wet weather that hampered field work.

In Germany plantings are underway on a wide scale in good weather conditions but it was still too early for an estimate of the area, said Guenter Tissen, head of German sugar industry association WVZ.

“Weather prospects currently look good, so that we can expect optimal beet development and ground temperature,” he said.

A drop in area was also expected in Britain this year.

“The area is shrinking because growers are losing faith in the crop. We think only 90,000 hectares of sugar beet will be grown, a 13 to 15% fall on a normal year,” James Northen, head of sugar at Britain’s National Farmers Union.

Reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris, Michael Hogan in Hamburg and Nigel Hunt in London; Editing by Peter Graff

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