Sugar beet industry looks to expand

WALLACEBURG, Ont. — Even a small boost in Canada sugar beet production would have a big economic impact, says the executive director of the Albert Sugar Beet Growers.

Gerald Third said producers in Alberta and Ontario see the opportunity, which is why they’re pursuing strategies to increase processing capacity and Canadian content in a market dominated by raw sugar imports.

Roughly 90,000 tonnes of refined sugar from Canadian-grown beets is consumed domestically, compared to total consumption of 1.2 million tonnes, Third said. The economic benefits would be huge even if an expanded Canadian industry were to capture five percent of the market, he added.

Third said grower sales will add up to $30 million this year in Alberta and translate into an overall economic impact of $150 million.

“Personally, I think we need a sugar policy in this country,” he said.

“Guys like Mark Lumley in Ontario and our guys here are trying to resurrect an industry that’s virtually extinct.”

Lumley heads the Ontario Sugarbeet Growers Association, which ships production from 10,000 acres of beets a year to the Michigan Sugar co-operative in Michigan.

Lumley was at the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks in Atlanta earlier this year exploring the possibilities with federal government trade representatives. He’s also been working with Ontario agriculture minister Jeff Leal and researchers at the Bioindustrial Innovation Canada research facility in Sarnia, Ont., where agricultural alternatives to fossil fuels are being investigated.

“The Canadian sugar industry is a monopoly of two giant importers,” Lumley said.

“We need to differentiate between what’s called Canadian sugar and our true Canadian-grown sugar industry. Sugar beets are the crop of choice here.… They’re the most efficient way in our climate for turning sunlight into energy.”

Third said U.S. sugar policy requires that domestic production meet at least 85 percent of sugar requirements. That wouldn’t be possible in Canada because the necessary infrastructure is long gone, he said, but a small increase in production to serve as the feedstock for high value products is a distinct possibility.

Lumley agreed but said government support is needed to make it possible.

That’s already happened in a small way with government grants for research in Alberta and Ontario for bio-industrial applications.

About 30,000 acres of sugar beets are now grown in Canada. The industry collapsed in the late 1960s after Canada relaxed border restrictions for raw sugar imports.

Importers Lantic Inc. and Redpath Sugars now dominate the sugar business. Lantic also operates Canada’s last sugar beet processing facility in Taber, Alta.

Sugar beet yields were strong this year in Alberta and Ontario.

Ontario producers are expected to average 34 tons per acre, said Wayne Martin, Michigan Sugar’s Ontario fieldsman.

He said the harvest was 80 percent complete as of Nov. 8. Five million tons of beets are expected to be delivered to the co-operative, which would push the company’s processing capacity to its limit.

Ontario growers are paid in U.S. funds. Returns of more than $60 per ton in Canadian funds are expected thanks to the favourable exchange rate.

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