Bright future for East Anglia’s beet growers

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 drive a scientific effort to increase yields of this vital crop, said Prof Maurice Moloney, 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 yields had steadily increased to 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.'

He praised the work on sugar beet, which had been carried out at Broom's Barn near Bury St Edmunds, since it was established in 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.'

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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, established more than 160 years, feeding into the sugar beet development.

'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, 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.'

He said that the world's largest beet sugar refinery was at Wissington, near Downham Market.

'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.