Research team aims to combat virus yellows in sugar beet

Dr Mark Stevens, lead scientist at British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO).

Dr Mark Stevens, lead scientist at British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO). - Credit: Submitted

A five-year collaborative research project has been launched which will see scientists and seed companies working together to target a major threat to the region's sugar beet crops.

The partnership, led by the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO), which is based at Norwich Research Park, aims to breed beet varieties which are resistant to virus yellows.

Virus yellows in sugar beet is a greater problem in the UK than anywhere else in Europe because our maritime climate favours the aphids which spread the disease.

The UK beet industry invests up to £7m annually on seed treatments and insecticide sprays for aphid control, without which the virus could cause losses estimated at up to £10m per year.

To reduce this reliance on chemicals, Dr Mark Stevens of BBRO, together with Dr Glenda Willems of seed company Sesvanderhave and Dr Thomas Kraft of international seed and agrochemical firm Syngenta, submitted a funding proposal in collaboration with Dr Lucy James of agricultural consultancy ADAS.

The project team has identified wild beet that are resistant to the effects of virus yellows and this genetic trait has been crossed into sugar beet, with the aim of developing this resistance further by crossing resistant lines with modern commercial breeding varieties.

A spokesman for the project team said: 'Recent EU restrictions on neonicotinoid use, as well as the development of insecticide resistance in aphids elsewhere in Europe, threatens to significantly increase the incidence of virus yellows in UK-grown sugar beet, which will make the UK crop less competitive in world markets.

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'Consequently, development of sugar beet varieties which are resistant to virus yellows is a critical component of future control strategies.'

The project has a total cost of £1.14m over five years, of which about £650,000 will be grant-funded by government agency Innovate UK.

The new varieties will be tested for virus yellows resistance, plant vigour and sugar yield, and it is hoped the project will accelerate production of resistant sugar beet which can bring 'significant economic and environmental benefits to the UK and the rest of Europe'.

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