After a record yield, then a pesticide setback – what’s next for East Anglia’s sugar beet?

British Beet Research Organisation - crop trial establishment at Morley.

British Beet Research Organisation - crop trial establishment at Morley. - Credit: BBRO

After a record-breaking campaign, Norfolk-based researchers are confident the success story of sugar beet yields will continue to grow – despite the setback of a major pesticide ban.

Sugar beet harvest, north Norfolk. Picture: Ian Burt

Sugar beet harvest, north Norfolk. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

The best-ever beet yield for the 2017/18 campaign, at 83.4 tonnes per hectare, was attributed to near-perfect growing conditions, allied to the continual improvements of varieties by the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO), which has helped drive a 25pc yield increase in the last 10 years.

But the industry suffered a setback last month when the EU voted to extend the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides to include all outdoor crops, including sugar beet – prompting warnings from East Anglian growers of 'significant impacts' on yields. The chemical was already banned on flowering crops due to concerns over its impact on bee health.

The BBRO, based at the Norwich Research Park, said neonicotinoids had provided sugar beet crops with up to 14 weeks of protection, controlling up to 15 different pests, from leaf miner to soil pests such as wireworm and virus-carrying aphids.

A spokesman said that decision would 'undoubtedly' influence the organisation's research priorities, adding: 'The extent of damage caused by its loss is hard to determine but the BBRO are working hard to identify ways of providing protection. In the immediate term, we will face some challenges, but the future is about a sound integrated approach, stacking hygiene, genetics and chemistry.'

British Beet Research Organisation - 2016 trial site.

British Beet Research Organisation - 2016 trial site. - Credit: BBRO

Despite those challenges, the BBRO still expects to see an annual incremental increase in yields.

'The efforts of the breeders continue to deliver and with the release this week of the 2019 Recommended List of sugar beet varieties we have another batch of varieties which have the potential to deliver an additional 5pc of yield over current standards,' said the spokesman.

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'In addition to genetics, our management of soils and seedbed preparation are seeing improvements in reaching target established plant populations (100,000 per ha) which is so critical to getting good canopy cover to intercept sunlight. The use of new cultivation approaches and the improvement of soil fertility are identifying further opportunities.

'Additionally, novel seed advancement technology and improved fungicide programmes enables us to both establish canopies and protect them better than ever before, allowing crops to optimise light interception for longer and improve sugar production.

British Beet Research Organisation - leaf miner maggots on a beet leaf.

British Beet Research Organisation - leaf miner maggots on a beet leaf. - Credit: BBRO

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'We're looking at how we use varieties more tactically to exploit their potential further. For example, understanding which varieties are more suitable for later harvesting in the campaign. We know that crops can increase yields by 20-40% between September and November and deploying the best variety to do this is key. 'We are looking at characteristics such as canopy growth habit (upright or prostrate leaves), leaf senescence, susceptibility to foliar diseases and root damage. The difference between varieties could be as much as 10-20pc, a worthy target for growers to aim at.'

The 2019 Recommended List for sugar beet, including five new varieties, can be downloaded from the BBRO website.

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