WATCH: How Norfolk beet is turned into sugar at British Sugar's factory at Cantley
Archant © 2017
With the abolition of EU sugar quotas offering an opportunity to ramp up production, how well placed is a 100-year-old factory to keep up with demand? We took a look behind the scenes at the Cantley sugar factory.
For 105 years, the plume of steam rising from the chimney stack at Cantley has been a sure-fire indicator that East Anglia’s sugar beet campaign is under way.
But this famous old factory, built in 1912, will need to work even harder in future, as the industry seeks to take advantage of new opportunities.
Before the removal of EU sugar quotas at the start of this month, this country had only been able to produce 1.056m tonnes, enough to satisfy about 60pc of domestic consumption, with the remainder supplied by imported cane and beet sugar from the EU and the rest of the world.
But now, with British Sugar predicting 1.4m tonnes could be produced in the 2017/18 campaign, the company hopes there will be an opportunity to sell any surplus, either by taking a greater share of the UK market, or looking at export destinations.
Dan Green, site manager at Cantley sugar factory, near Acle, said there had been continual investment in the ageing labyrinth of pipes, flumes, conveyors, diffusers and evaporators to ensure it was ready to meet its modern challenges.
“Over the last 5-10 years we have spent quite a lot of money on new technology and maintaining the older parts of the plant,” he said. “We spent £2.4m on a thick juice export system. It is a way of storing that concentrated syrup for months at a time, which helps to de-couple the factory – it means that if the sugar end is running slower we can export the juice and we can keep the beet end of the factory running.”
There is also a £4.5m new computerised control system which monitors every stage of the process from a room with more than 40 computer screens.
“We’ve also invested in a heavy fuel oil conversion to gas on one of our main boilers,” said Mr Green. “That has allowed us to reduce the amount we pay for our energy. We continue to look for opportunities to invest in new technology which will take us forward.”
About 9,000 tonnes of beet is delivered to Cantley per day, which is converted into 1,250 tonnes of crystal sugar through a process of washing, slicing, diffusing, purification, evaporation and separation. The whole process from beet delivery to sugar packing takes about 16 hours.
While the industry is confident in its competitive efficiency, there are lingering uncertainties over whether the post-Brexit trade system could abandon import barriers and allow “dumping” of state-subsidised cane sugar imports from elsewhere in the world.
Colm McKay, agriculture director at British Sugar, said: “This is clearly an opportunity for us to expand as an industry, not just in the internal market, but in Europe as well.
“We are estimating approximately a 1.4m tonne sugar crop this campaign, so having the ability to export on to the world market is clearly good news.
“It is a very competitive market place, but the really good news for us is collectively with our growers we are a really efficient industry.
“Working with the BBRO (the British Beet Research Organisation, based in Norwich), sugar beet yields have grown by 50pc in the last 30 years and you cannot say that about any other broad-acre crop. With that pedigree we will be able to compete in any marketplace as long as there is a level playing field.”
Mr McKay said the ability to export surplus sugar could have a stabilising effect on crop area, and therefore beet prices.
“In 2014, because of quotas restricting how much we could sell, we had to store hundreds of thousands of tonnes of sugar at a significant cost,” he said. “We then had to talk to our growers to reduce our crop area. Because we have now got the outlet onto the world market we shouldn’t have to put similar measures in place going forward. Hopefully that will bring more stability to the industry in terms of production volume, and allow growers to plan ahead.”