UK onion growers are planning to seriously scale back production next year following two years of rocketing production costs, poor returns from supermarkets and the impending withdrawal of key pesticides from the European market.

Marketable yields had declined by 8% over the past year as producers exited the sector, said John Patrick of the British Onion Producers Association.

Production costs had gone up by about 31% this year and many growers had found the sector unprofitable, he added.

Growers were now considering tightening supply by cutting back acreage in a bid to gain higher prices, said Patrick. If the UK acreage continued to decline, it would lead to increased imports, he warned, adding that Dutch, Spanish and New Zealand growers were already supplying significant volumes. "The Dutch supply cheaper and this situation could open the door to more Dutch production," he said. "In the value chase buying British becomes secondary."

The industry would realistically see a large drop in acreage in the coming season, predicted Fraser Key of Keys of Lincolnshire. "The money being received for onions at retail level isn't getting back to the growers," he said.

Another producer warned that if the EU pesticide proposals went through, suppliers would be unable to grow onions in commercial quantities, as the chemicals slated for withdrawal for onions were crucial to crop health. "It'll be a total nightmare," he said. "The ironic thing is that we'll get onions bought in [from outside the EU] with the stuff that we're not allowed to use."

Changes to the pesticide rules would seriously impact on both yield and quality, agreed onion grower Robert Brown of EC Brown & Sons. Some growers were even considering switching production to cereal crops, he said.

Onion seed suppliers had also reported having orders cancelled for next spring, Key claimed, as some growers could not afford to plant next season's crop.