Less sugar, more bees please!

Do you, like me, have a sweet tooth? You may then be concerned to read that the Uk’s sugar industry is in big trouble.  Last winter was exceptionally mild in England, with few frosts. This allowed record-breaking numbers of aphids to survive. They transmit a kind of beet malaria (virus yellows) to the sugar beet. This disease decimated crop yields. Some farmers lost 80% of their crop and some have now given up growing beet. Farmers have demanded that they should be allowed to protect their crops by using pesticides containing neonicotinoids. These were almost completely banned in this country in 2018 because they are harmful to bees and other insects. At the time environment minister Michael Gove said  “The weight of evidence now shows the risks neonicotinoids pose to our environment, particularly to the bees and other pollinators … We cannot afford to put our pollinator populations at risk.” But now the Government has U turned due to pressure from the National Farmers Union. 

This is bad news for the bees. A 2019 study found  that  a third of the 353 species of wild bees and hoverflies in Scotland, England and Wales were in decline. While some pollination is carried out by honeybees in hives, much of the pollination of food crops and wild plants is carried out by their wild relatives and other insects, especially hoverflies. We should not be reversing the ban on dangerous pesticides when nature is already in such decline. Without insects to pollinate our crops, we starve. 

Globally insects are in spectacular decline in what is being termed the 6th mass extinction. Sheffield Green Parents and Friends of the Earth  are currently urging Sheffield Council to recognise this by declaring an ecological emergency. Council policy must start to protect our local biodiversity. A good first move would be to stop using Glyphosate on our streets and parks.

Do we really need all the sugar the farmers are producing? As a child I was given sugar sandwiches, so I definitely developed a sweet tooth! But now we understand much more about the damage sugar does to us.  Too much sugar leads to weight gain, tooth cavities, heart disease and diabetes. On average, the UK population consumes around 1.35 million tonnes per year , or 56g per day, which is about 14 teaspoons’ full. Adults consume around twice their recommended daily level of free sugars, and children and teenagers consume around three times higher. The sugar tax has done very little to reduce our addiction to the sweet stuff. Yet, 39% of adults believe they don’t consume too much. We clearly have a blind spot when it comes to sugar. 

Currently, the UK produces approximately half of the food we consume, and we import £11.1 billion worth of fruit and vegetables per year. In the future as climate chaos becomes more extreme, it will be increasingly  difficult to import food. Like our sugar beet crop, crops around the world will fail due to droughts, floods, plagues and other climate related events and countries will understandably prioritise their own populations.  We must become more self-reliant if we are going to be able to feed ourselves.  In 2018, 110,000 hectares of UK agricultural land was used to grow sugar beet, roughly the same as the 116,000 hectares of land used for the production of all UK vegetable crops .

I believe it is time to move our production away from sugar beet, to grow more healthy food. 

Growing sugar is very damaging to our soils. Soil is lost due to crop harvesting  when soil clings to the root or tuber as it is pulled from the ground. Nutrients such as nitrates are removed so they are replaced with fertiliser, leading to more  greenhouse gas emissions. Soil is also lost when it is washed away by rains, or disturbed and blown away during tilling or ploughing. Sugar beet is harvested in autumn and winter when soils are wetter, causing more damage to the soil structure and more soil to stick to crops and farming equipment. Attempts to grow sugar organically in this country have not been very successful. 

UK sugar production is largely profiting British Sugar at the expense of our health and environment. With the huge food security and sustainability challenges posed by climate change, we cannot afford to waste valuable land, soils, and resources growing sugar. Nor can we afford to pay for both subsidies to grow sugar and NHS bills to treat the negative health effects of this destructive industry. Now farmers require bee killing pesticides to grow it, surely it is time for a rethink.   The UK must quickly transition to food production that maximises the nutritional value while at the same time improves our environment leading to healthier diets and a healthier planet.


Government breaks promise to maintain ban on bee-harming pesticide Guardian


Government to let farmers use bee killing pesticide banned in EU-Independent


Too much of a bad thing

Bees: Many British pollinating insects in decline, study shows


Decline of insects


Health problems of sugar


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