Minister: Not putting a dampener on beet, but the price is low

This time last year, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture published a report entitled the ‘Future of the Tillage Sector in Ireland’. In the report, 35 recommendations were made to improve things in the sector.

Last Thursday (November 22), exactly one year after the publication of the plan, AgriLand spoke to Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Michael Creed to find out what has happened since then. This weekend AgriLand will bring you the interview with the minister in three instalments.

One of the recommendations of the plan was to investigate the viability of the revival of the beet industry. It should be noted that this was a recommendation by the committee and no commitment was given by the department to carry out this study.

“We never gave a commitment in the department or in Government. The Oireachtas committee might have asked for one, but we didn’t give a commitment to carry out a viability study.

“What we have said in the programme for Government, however, is very clear. State bodies will be asked to examine any individual business plans related to re-building the industry, with a view to considering what the appropriate state aids might be.

“I’m very aware that Beet Ireland has a site purchased and are having public meetings presently.”

The minister added that he is aware that Beet Ireland is in talks with potential investors.

This is not a cheap process; some people have estimated that between €250-400 million will be needed to set up a new sugar or bio-ethanol production facility.

“The programme for Government’s commitment is that we would look at any serious proposal.

“Obviously, they’re in the process of developing a serious proposal if they’re contemplating going for planning permission. But, going for planning and having the capital backers to invest in a facility of that cost is a very substantial undertaking.”

Price of sugar

The Minister was wary of the price being paid for sugar beet in other countries at the minute.

“The only other observation I’d make, which isn’t meant at all to be a dampener on it, but it is worth bearing in mind that the last time we had a sugar industry here, farmers were getting in the region of €50/t.

Figures I saw recently in the UK for sugar beet, growers are suggesting a price for 2019 of just over €20/t. That’s a very different crop to what the industry here had.

Fully intent on evaluating investment when the time comes

The minister is fully intent on evaluating an investment when the time arises.

“We are committed to evaluating any planned investment, whether it’s Google or anybody else that comes with an investment proposal that the state backs. We have to see that it would stack up.”

However, he was also worried about the struggles that the industry has faced in other countries.

The other thing that I have seen around the table at the Council of Agriculture ministers’ meetings is ministers from individual member states looking for the commission to bale out sugar industry plants that are already in existence.

The minister was quick to say that this project is very different to the previous industry, that finished in 2006, with the addition of a bio-ethanol plant. He added that he wasn’t qualified to comment on expectations for the industry.

“It’s a different scenario today, allied by sugar there’s a bio-ethanol facility in the plan. How different that makes the proposal to what was previously here I’m not qualified to call at this stage, nor have we seen any proposal.”