BBRO chief signposts path to progress
The UK sugar beet industry
has a long successful record
of funding its own research
through a growers and
Andrew Blake asks the
chairman of the new body
overseeing future projects to
pinpoint outstanding needs
AUTUMN sugar beet management merits much more research, according to John MacLeod, chairman of the British Beet Research Organisation.
"We need to know how growth can be maintained without losing sugar percentage. We must understand how pest and disease management affects autumn growth and storage," he says.
"We want to find out if beet can be left longer in the ground to minimise storage and whether there are varietal differences which can be exploited. There are several programmes just starting in this area."
Research must react swiftly to changing economic and agronomic conditions, stresses Mr MacLeod. The UKs response to rhizomania is a good example of what can be achieved. "We saw positive monitoring and management of outbreaks, rapid response by plant breeders, and good communication and co-operation with other relevant European beet researchers.
"That produced effective screening of germplasm and new varieties for resistance without significant loss of yield potential.
"Rhizomania is still a serious threat, but we are now in a much better position to manage it."
The UKs present and probably changing climatic conditions provide a searching challenge.
"Our maritime climate has advantages and disadvantages when compared with that of our competitors in Europe.
"On the one hand we can harvest over longer periods. British Sugar has been very effective at exploiting this by lengthening the processing campaign." BS has also increased the efficiency of expensive factories by processing some of the crop only to the syrup stage during the campaign and crystallising it later, he says.
"The disadvantage is that we do not get the high light interception that the French do."
Conducting a focused research programme, however, is only half the story.
"The information and new technology derived from research must be communicated to and taken up by the industry. Our industry has an enviable record in this. All sectors show continuous and significant improvement.
"The UK beet sugar industry is now consistently one of the most cost-effective in Europe. In the 1970s we languished at the bottom of the European league table. Now we usually sit in joint second or third place.
"But the future is extremely challenging. We face world economic and environmental pressures, the consequences of an enlarged European Community, and continued competition from cane and artificial sweeteners.
"Focused research is a key element in the drive to increase efficiency."
Good research requires good science and facilities. The industry has been well served by IACR-Brooms Barn, British Sugars Holmwood Hall, NIAB, ADAS, Morley Research Centre, the CSL and others.
BBRO will give clear guidance to all such contractors to ensure research projects are relevant and offer economic gain, says Mr MacLeod.
"Communication across the industry is essential to ensure new technology gets taken up. It is also critical to inform and guide research objectives. BBRO through its sponsors, the NFU and BS, and its links to the research community, consultants and advisers, intends to play a central role in the process." *
• Autumn crop management.
• Changing UK climate.
• Organic production.
• Technology transfer.
Organisation aims to lift UK profitability
After MAFFs withdrawal from the long established Sugar Beet Research and Education Fund the NFU, representing growers, and British Sugar have jointly established the British Beet Research Organisation.
BBRO is a non-profit-making company funded by a levy of 12p/adjusted tonne of processed beet borne equally by growers and BS. The current levy raises about £2.4m and is, by far, the main source of funding for beet research and technology transfer programmes. The BBRO board, supported by a scientific advisory committee, will set priorities and commission programmes to increase the competitiveness and profitability of the UK beet sugar industry in a sustainable and environmentally acceptable manner.
Pinpointing varieties which can safely be left in the ground to minimise storage is a key target for future research, says John MacLeod.
• £2.4m a year*
• 34.4% – Weed & pest control (incl rhizomania).
• 22% – Genetic technology. Crop improvement.
• 20% – Crop physiology & environmental responses.
• 13.5% – Harvesting & storage.
• 5.4% – Technology transfer.
*80% committed at any one time, mostly on 3-4-year projects.
New market opportunities always need investigating, says Mr MacLeod. "There is a small but growing market for organic sugar at present being supplied by imports."
A new BBRO-funded four-year £160,000 project involving ADAS, BS and Silsoe Research Institute will investigate problems of establishment, weed control, pest and disease management, as well as crop nutrition and beet quality under organic conditions.
"Virus yellows could be a big problem, not only in the organic beet itself. Such crops could act as a source of infection to neighbouring conventional crops. Both aspects will be investigated."
Current information suggests organic methods will result in more variable yields and reductions of 20-40%, he notes. "There is a significant premium for organic sugar but will it be economically sustainable?"