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Poor crop could drive more French farmers away from sugar beet

FILE PHOTO: A farmer harvests a sugar beet field in Abancourt

PARIS (Reuters) - France's sugar beet output is expected to fall more than 7% this year after a severe drought this summer hit yields, and next season could see another drop in planted area if farmers switch to more profitable grain crops, beet growers said on Wednesday.

In its first estimate for this season, growers group CGB put the crop at 32 million tonnes, in line with the French farm ministry's forecast of 31.94 million tonnes issued in early November, but well below last year's 34.5 million tonnes.

"We were hoping for a record crop before the summer but we will likely finish below the 80 tonnes (per hectare), which is an enormous disappointment," CGB Chairman Franck Sander said, adding the beets' average sugar content was also low.

The average yield in France was 85.7 tonnes per hectare in 2021.

This year's sugar beet crop was expected to generate 3.6 million tonnes of sugar in 2022/23, down from 3.9 million tonnes last season, CGB said.

CGB's 2022 crop forecast was based on an estimated planted area of 400,000 hectares, down from 403,000 hectares in 2021.

Sander warned of a further drop in area in 2023 after some farmers in regions that recorded very poor yields this year, and whose crops suffered from the devastating yellows disease in 2020, could decide to turn to grains that are more profitable and less risky.

This would be a sixth consecutive fall in planted area.

To help farmers and sugar makers after the slump in output in 2020, France suspended its ban on the use of neonicotinoids, a chemical seen as harmful to bees, on sugar beet crops until 2023 at the latest.

So far, researchers mandated by France have not found an alternative that would offer similar yields, CGB Director General Nicolas Rialland said.

However, French sugar producers' move to increase the price paid for sugar beet would limit the fall in 2023 planted area, he said.

(Reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide; Editing by Gus Trompiz and Mark Potter)