Sugar bosses have expressed delight after landing a major grant which could help combat a disease which has plagued beet growers for a number of years.

In 2020, sugar beet yields plunged by about a quarter because of incidents of Virus Yellows disease in the crop.

Now British Sugar has secured just over £660,000 in grant funding from the government towards further research into how gene editing can be used to benefit the British sugar beet crop. In total £1m will be spent on trying to solve the problem.

The funding from Innovate UK’s Farming Futures R&D Fund was awarded jointly to British Sugar, agricultural biotechnology company Tropic and world-leading plant science institute the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich.

The aim is to develop natural Virus Yellows resistance in sugar beet. The British Beet Research Organisation – the UK’s beet sugar industry’s dedicated research centre – will also support the project.

The work will cost £1m, with £663,443 iin government grant aid and the remainder from British Sugar, Tropic and JIC.

The project will use Tropic’s Gene Editing induced Gene Silencing (GEiGS) technology platform to introduce minimal, precise genetic changes to redirect sugar beet’s own natural defence mechanisms.

Virus Yellows – a crop disease spread by aphids - had a severe impact on the homegrown sugar industry in 2020, with significant impacts on the livelihoods of British sugar beet growers.

At least 40% of the crop was affected nationally, and overall yields were down 25% on the five-year average.

It is hoped the project will also build technical capabilities in sugar beet gene editing for the UK and develop other traits to protect and enhance the crop.    

British Sugar agriculture director Dan Green said: “We are delighted to have been awarded this funding, which will help us make great strides in our work towards protecting the sugar beet crop from Virus Yellows disease, and potentially other crop diseases in the future.

"We look forward to continuing to work with our partners, Tropic and the John Innes Centre, to progress this research over the coming years, for the benefit of the whole UK beet sugar industry.”

Ofir Meir, chief technology officer at Tropic, said the GEiGS technology was a game changing platform which would enable much more sustainable cropping practices.

Professor Steven Penfield, whose group at the John Innes Centre will develop the technology necessary to support the gene-editing of sugar beet, welcomed the investment.

The new approach to combating the disease is a result of the recent passing of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023.