Sugar beet is on the cusp of benefitting from a host of technological advances that could increasingly see it grown for uses other than to create sugar, according to the director of Rothamsted Research.

Maurice Moloney said the UK sugar beet acreage, currently about 120,000ha, could substantially increase if alternative uses for the crop for food, energy, and bio-products can be developed.

These include by-products such as bioethanol, food additives, betaine and polyester granules.

However, if the UK is serious about attracting more people into growing beet, more investment in breeding and scientific techniques is needed to enhance yields and create these new markets, he said.

“I’ve always felt sugar beet is a Cinderella crop – it’s a crop that surprises you with its potential, despite the fact it has gone through several levels of de-emphasis in this country,” said Prof Moloney, speaking at the recent Hull Annual Lecture at Broom’s Barn Research Centre, in Suffolk.

“Yet when you look at its potential and the metabolic beauty of what sugar beet is capable of doing, you’ve got to say that it’s something we should be working on and exploiting.”

Major breeding techniques could help to increase yields, improve disease resistance and bolting problems, as well as the value of pulp and secondary components, he pointed out.

Apart from providing sucrose – a valuable globally traded commodity – sugar beet offered great product versatility, said Prof Moloney.

“The pulp is a high-energy form of animal feed and yet we can take all this to produce large amounts of bioethanol,” he said.

He predicted that alternative liquid fuels, such as bioethanol, would attract a “very steady market” in the near future.

Sugar beet is already used for many things other than sugar production.

Processing sucrose from sugar beet produces betaine as a by-product. Betaine is used in applications as diverse as sports nutrition, stabilisers and emulsifiers for food production, cosmetics and de-icers for airport runways.

It also has many pharmaceutical uses, including the treatment of stomach problems and heart and liver disease.

Prof Moloney said more “outrageous” products were being developed using beet, such as the production of polyester granules, polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA).

PHAs are biodegradable plastics that can offer controlled degradation rates, so there is considerable interest in their use in medical applications such as tissue engineering, drug delivery, stent manufacturing, surgical sutures, wound dressing and endodontic material.

Prof Moloney also predicted products would eventually be able to be derived from the sugar beet root itself.

North America was pioneering research and development into beet and its bio-products, he said, citing RoundUp Ready beet – genetically engineered beet from Monsanto – as an example. But he would like to see the UK reposition itself as a leader in breeding and germplasm of sugar beet.

“We have a golden opportunity to enhance further the productivity and value of the sugar beet crop to increase its use for food and energy, and as a bio-product vehicle as well,” he said.


Bioethanol

Bill Clark, director of Broom’s Barn, believes the sugar beet acreage in the UK could increase dramatically if bioethanol production increases.

He tells Farmers Weekly: “This is largely dependant on British Sugar and its plans for further development at its bioethanol plant at Wissington or developments at other sites.”

The Wissington refinery currently produces up to 55,000t (70m litres) of bioethanol every year, using about 650,000t of sugar beet for this purpose.

Bioethanol can be produced by the fermentation of sugar beet or wheat, but with wheat prices so high at present, Mr Clark says beet is an increasingly attractive source.

“Average beet yields in the UK are 60-70t/ha and Broom’s Barn’s highest yield was 139t/ha in 2009, so there’s lots of potential,” he adds.

Mr Clark says Broom’s Barn is researching ways to get more sugar and co-products out of sugar beet.

The research involves selecting or breeding beet that produces more available sugars, making extraction more efficient and increasing the value of the remaining pulp – either as an animal feedstock or a material for biogas production.

“Modification of cell walls and storage capacity could lead to many other uses for beet,” he adds.