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EU heading for lower sugar output as pest attacks bite

PARIS, Sept 14 (Reuters) - The European Union is heading for a significant drop in sugar output this year after fields were devastated by pests and dry weather, making the bloc a net importer and pressuring a fragile sugar industry, analysts say.

Sugar production in the EU and Britain is set to fall to 16.1 million tonnes, down from about 17 million in 2019, mainly due to lower sugar beet output in top producer France, French growers’ group CGB estimates.

Yields in France are expected to fall by 15% compared to the five-year average mainly because jaundice transmitted by aphids ravaged fields across the country, CGB analyst Timothe Masson said.

Combined with a lower area sown, that means production of sugar beet, also used to make ethanol fuel, would fall to 31.7 million tonnes from 38.6 million in 2019, cutting French refined sugar production to 4.1 million tonnes from 4.9 million.

“You have to go back to 2003 to see such poor yields,” Masson said.

The lower output this year will mean a shorter production period for sugar producers at similar costs, reducing their competitiveness, Masson said. He estimated the loss for the French sugar industry at 170 million euros ($202 million).

Growers say the drop in yields could have been avoided if they had been allowed to use neonicotinoids, a pesticide banned in many parts of the European Union because it is believed to be harmful to bees.

France’s farm minister said he planned a derogation to use the pesticide on sugar beet in a bid to convince farmers not to turn away from the crop. The sugar industry is still trying to recover after years of poor returns due to a slump in sugar prices.

The drop in yields was expected to be similar in the UK but would be partly offset by a 5% rise in area, said Arthur Marshall, senior commercial analyst at NFU Sugar.

UK sugar production totaled 1.19 million tonnes in the 2019/20 season, according to processor British Sugar.

The impact of a neonicotinoids ban was lower in Germany but sugar beet suffered from dry weather this year, farmers said.

Germany’s refined sugar production from beets in the 2020/21 season starting now is forecast to fall to about 4.12 million tonnes from 4.23 million last season, Germany’s sugar industry association WVZ said in its first harvest forecast.

In Poland, refined sugar production was preliminarily estimated to rise to around 2.2 million tonnes from 2.0 million last season, a slightly higher sugar beet yield than a year earlier, said Rafal Strachota, director of Polish beet growers’ association KZPBC.

$1 = 0.8434 euros Reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris, Michael Hogan in Hamburg and Nigel Hunt in London Editing by Nick Tattersall

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