Sugar beet ‘could become one of the country’s most important food and energy crops’, conference told

Sugar beet could become one of the country’s most important food and energy crops, growers were told at a major industry conference.

A new centre of excellence in East Anglia will help to drive a major scientific effort to increase yields of this vital crop, said Prof Maurice Moloney, who is director of Rothamsted Research.

In a 40-minute address to the British Beet Research Organisation’s Closing the Gap conference at Peterborough, he said that there was an “enormous opportunity” to take a highly-successful crop to the next stage.

He said that sugar beet yields had steadily increased and had reached 68 tonnes per hectare. “The only way that the crop can make a step-change in yield is by technological focus. We need to understand more and more about how the crop grows.”

Prof Moloney praised the work on sugar beet, which had been carried out at Broom’s Barn near Bury St Edmunds, since it was established almost 50 years ago in August 1962. “It has a substantial and illustrious history in developing knowledge and technologies which have been incorporated into daily life of the sugar beet farmer,” he added.

It would continue to play a major role as a centre of excellence and build on the practice research, which was being carried out by scientists including Dr Mark Stevens. “We really do want to have at Broom’s Barn and collaborating groups a network of excellence around sugar beet research.”

“A central plank of the strategy would involve many of the 300 scientists and crop biologists at Rothamsted, which was established more than 160 years, feeding into the sugar beet development. “We’re going to build much more intensive work on sugar beet at Harpenden where we have 300 people and analytical facilities and greenhouses.

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“We have a golden opportunity to enhance the sugar beet crop and in a sense, it is a very open-ended opportunity because sugar beet is a lot more than a food crop now. It is also a contributor to energy security which will become more and more important in the next 20 years.”

Prof Moloney worked on oilseed rape or canola in Canada for more than 20 years when it was regarded as a Cinderella crop because rapeseed was understudied.

“I absolutely believe that sugar beet is another crop like that. We have made many improvements to sugar beet over the years and yet I absolutely believe that we’ve not seen anything like the potential of this very interesting biological organism which is also an important crop in Britain.”

He was impressed by the existing technologies, including “priming” of beet seeds to synchronise germination by King’s Lynn-based Germains.

“In Europe, we are a major player and in fact, in many senses, considering the acreage available (in England), we punch way above our weight and that looks like it is set to continue with some of the increases in yields both per hectare and sugar obtained per hectare.

“There has been a significant jump even in the past five years. We are in the top 10 sugar beet producers worldwide – actually at number nine – with France heading the list, ahead of the United States.”

“Again, if you look at yields per hectare, again we punch above our weight. We have in many senses as a sugar beet community done a fantastic job in terms of production,” said Prof Moloney.

He said that the world’s largest beet sugar refinery was at Wissington, near Downham Market. “It is one of the most impressive agricultural processing facilities because of its size and its integration of inputs and outputs – the way it has been designed to ensure that there are no waste products. Everything which traditionally would have been considered to be surplus or waste is used in a specific way.”

“If we can increase the sugar concentration in a beet then the efficiency of a plant like Wissington goes up substantially with appropriate increases in concentration that can translate into millions of pounds per annum.”

He said a move to winter hardy sugar beet could also help to achieve higher yields. “For the moment, we want to focus on our attention on creating the perfect beet,” he added.