What are some alternatives for beetroot

Virus attacks sugar beets in Werdenberg: organic farmers are looking for alternatives - conventional farmers are turning to insecticides

Virus attacks sugar beets in Werdenberg: organic farmers are looking for alternatives - conventional farmers are turning to insecticides

Yellowing caused by a virus threatens the sugar beet harvest in Switzerland. The virus, which is transmitted by aphids, also attacked the sugar beet fields in Werdenberg this year. High losses are expected across Switzerland.

The viral yellowing of sugar beet caused by the BYT virus was already detected in the Werdenberg and Rhine valley last year. It was one of the first beet growing regions in Eastern Switzerland where the problem recently emerged. Last year, however, the situation in Werdenberg was not yet dramatic, as there were neither immense crop failures nor reductions in the sugar content of the beets. The situation is different in the severely affected western Switzerland.

Aphid year 2020 makes the situation worse

The BYT virus is transmitted by aphids when they suckle. It leads to the fact that the growth of the sugar beets is disturbed and smaller beets with less sugar content grow. Especially due to the warm winter, which did not weaken the aphid population enough, this year developed into a so-called aphid year. In addition, no natural fungus growth in the aphids was observed this year. This regulating factor was mostly absent due to the lack of moisture. All of this allowed the virus to spread quickly. But you have to be prepared for more pests. Beet farmer Niklaus Vorburger from Räfis says:

"Due to future climate changes, the pest populations will continue to increase in the future."

Treated seeds pose little risk to bees

This virus is by no means new. But it was not a problem for over 30 years, because the beet seed could be dressed with the neonicotinoid imidacloprid, better known as gaucho, says Luzi Schneider, head of the Eastern Switzerland department at the Swiss Specialized Center for Sugar Beet Growing (SVZ). However, this neonicotinoid was banned in Switzerland from the end of 2018. The reason for this was the damaging effect on bees. Luzi Schneider says:

"There is generally little danger to bees in beet cultivation, because the beets do not bloom until the second year, but are harvested in the first year."

Therefore, an application for an emergency license has currently been submitted to the Federal Office for Agriculture. This is also confirmed by the canton president of Bienen Switzerland, Hans-Peter Hagmann. In the spring, when the leaves release dew, bees could meet their fluid needs in this way.

“The bees have so-called water carriers who fetch the water for the young bees. If this gets to a pickled sugar beet, it can lead to a problem for the entire bee colony, ”says Hagmann. However, this is all only in theory. Documented cases are known to him only from Germany.

In addition, the beekeepers in Werdenberg are further removed from intensive agriculture than in other regions, he explains. A far bigger problem for the bees are the varo mites, says Hagmann. This mite, which was introduced from Asia in the eighties, is still the main problem for the Werdenberg bee colonies.

There is currently a lack of alternatives

To secure part of the harvest, many farmers in the region treat their beet fields with insecticides. This produces considerably higher costs, as beet farmer Rudolf Senn from Haag says:

"In addition, people don't like to see the farmer spraying."

Niklaus Vorburger also finds this suboptimal because it makes no ecological sense. Today he has to treat his field three times more with pesticides than before the neonicotinoid ban. Senn also emphasizes that farmers are very reluctant to use a lot of pesticides. In addition, these sprayings would also harm the beneficial insects.

Look for alternative treatments

The farmers who cooperate with the Bio Suisse label are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides, according to media spokesman David Hermann: “Instead, the industry is currently working with the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL) to find alternative treatment methods. The first research results are already available. "

"Bud producers rely on mechanical field cultivation with harrow and hoe, flower strips and clever crop rotation for a healthy soil that increases resistance."

By changing the cultivation locations, attempts were made to protect this year's cultivation, says Niklaus Vorburger. While the infestations in 2019 were often sporadic, Vorburger fears major failures this year. He reckons with a high loss of sugar content. Rudolf Senn, on the other hand, is expecting manageable losses this year.

Research has recently been carried out on resistant varieties. However, these should be expected in five to ten years at the earliest, says Luzi Schneider. As a trial, Vorburger got a different type of beet from the sugar factory of Switzerland Zucker AG in Frauenfeld. However, this did not bring any noticeably better results.

Senn, who has also experimented with alternative strains, sees improvements. Since there is currently no functioning alternative to the active ingredient imidacloprid, Rübenbauer Vorburger is in favor of emergency approval. But he also emphasizes: "During this time you have to look for alternatives as quickly as possible and find them".

Risk to Swiss sugar production

"The Swiss sugar cultivation has shrunk to a marginal limit of 18,000 hectares",

says Luzi Schneider. Sugar beet cultivation in Switzerland has already declined by around 4,000 hectares in recent years. Above all, the sugar factory in Aarberg, which processes the western Swiss cultivation, is existentially threatened under current conditions, according to Schneider.

"Until six years ago, sugar beet cultivation was still our mainstay," says Vorburger. Today he still cultivates a field with beets. Giving up sugar beet production is not the goal, but if there are no changes, it will be difficult, also for the beet farmers in Werdenberg. He understands that many farmers are switching to vegetables, for example. The higher expenses for protective agents due to the neonicotinoid ban and the unchanged price are a big problem. Vorburger adds:

"If it weren't for the area contribution of 2100 francs per hectare, I would have stopped long ago."

Rudolf Senn also reports on the currently very low sugar price. Like Vorburger, he would rather have a higher product price than state subsidies that are limited in time. "This would mean that those who try hardest also benefit the most," says Vorburger. Because at the moment you only get subsidies per hectare, regardless of the production volume. Sugar beet is a very useful crop in its own right in crop rotation, but it stays in the field for a very long time. The cost ratio is no longer correct.

Disadvantage compared to imports

Compared to imported sugar and beets, they have a major disadvantage, reports Senn. Because in many EU countries there is now a temporary emergency approval for neonicotinoids, as is also being discussed in Switzerland. The situation becomes difficult if it takes a few more years to find a solution to the problem, said Vorburger.

By then, many farmers will already have switched and, due to the annual contracts with customers, they will hardly change back, says Senn. He hopes that sugar production can be maintained, because Swiss sugar is currently in general demand.