French sugar beet pesticide alternative could be five years away

FRANCE: Research into alternatives to neonicotinoid pesticides, found to be toxic to bees, is unlikely to deliver a solution capable of fully protecting sugar beet crops for five years, a leading French scientist said.

After the beet yellows virus carried by aphids reduced the French harvest by 30% in 2020, and farmers and sugar makers lobbied the government, France suspended a European Union ban on neonicotinoids until 2023 and launched a research programme to find alternatives to the chemical in the meantime.

But an EU Court of Justice ruling that member states cannot offer exemptions to the bloc’s ban forced France to drop its exemption before an effective solution could be found.

“Maybe some varieties in 2024 will bring 10%-15% more yield than what we had in 2020 but finding a replacement won’t happen overnight,” Fabienne Maupas said. She is head of research at French sugar beet technical institute ITB, in charge of the PNRI programme to find alternatives to neonicotinoids.

“We will not have protection levels as efficient as neonicotinoids for another five years,” she added.

She said this year’s aphid attacks are relatively low so the delay should not have a major impact on France’s sugar beet crops this year.

The greater issue for now is late sowings due to wet weather earlier in the year and reduction in the area sown as farmers were deterred by potential crop damage.

Maupas said any solution was likely to comprise a combination of several techniques and products and would not be as simple as neonicotinoids that are applied as a coating around seeds.

Several seed makers, including Germany’s KWS Saat (KWSG.DE), are working on new sugar beet varieties that would be protected from aphids and the yellows virus, but developing new seeds tends to take years.

Other ways to protect sugar beet include growing other crops, such as spring barley and oats, in the same field to attract aphids, or perfumed granules that repel pests before they damage crops – a technology developed by French startup Agriodor.

Extra costs for farmers from using these alternatives are estimated at 60 euros ($65.45) per hectare, Maupas said. Based on an average yield, this would amount to 0.75 cents per tonne. European sugar was trading at a record-high 812 euros per tonne in April, the latest EU data showed. —Reuters

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