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Sugar beet to return to Scotland after 50 years – this time for climate change mitigation

Almost fifty years on from the closure of the Cupar Sugar Beet factory, a Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) group aims to look into the feasibility and steps required to re-establish the crop and its processing in eastern Scotland.  The 2020 driver is to contribute to climate change mitigation, rather than sugar for human consumption, and the decarbonisation of industry to meet Scotland’s greenhouse gas reduction targets, by producing bioethanol as a fuel additive and new plant-based biotech products.

Scottish Enterprise commissioned the UK bioeconomy consultancy, NNFCC, to produce a report, published in summer 2019, which identified that a refinery would need up to 20,000ha of sugar beet from arable land of class 3.1 or better, within a 30 to 60 mile radius of the refinery plant’s location.

Commenting on the news, Iain Riddell from SAC Consulting who is facilitating the group says: “The feasibility of re-establishing the growing and processing of the crop in Scotland has brought together stakeholders with the will, the knowledge and the capability to make the vision reality.

“A resurrected crop and a new refinery could offer a huge opportunity for agriculture to contribute to CO2 reduction and in the creation of new plant derived products, but farmers will also have to factor in the feasibility, risk and reward of growing a crop that is new to most of them.

“We have  experience of producing the closely related energy beet crops for AD and the growing of fodder beet for livestock , and it should be possible to grow sugar beet, but comprehensive trials will be required to assess yield, sugar content and hardiness of modern varieties in Scottish conditions.

“Farmers will see this as an opportunity, but also a challenge, because growing conditions are unlike those of the dominant beet growing area of East Anglia where the crop is grown in free-draining sandy loams,” Mr Riddell suggests.

“We’d see the opportunity best suited to the better arable land in Angus, Fife and Perth and Kinross, potentially extending into the Lothians and Aberdeenshire, all depending on the refinery’s location.

“Wider challenges will also need to be considered, such as the potential for soil compaction associated with late, wet harvesting conditions.”

Project collaborators include Scottish Enterprise, The James Hutton Institute, SAOS and IBioIC the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre, and farmers will have a chance to join in shortly through the RISS project.

David Smith, Director of National Opportunities at Scottish Enterprise said: “Positive action and creative thinking is required across our economy to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045 and the work taking place in partnership across agriculture, manufacturing and biotechnology to investigate alternative bio-based manufacturing solutions shows how we can be truly innovative in our approach.

“If this project is successful, the environmental benefits of sugar beet as an alternative manufacturing feedstock will be investigated for use across a wide range of sectors, instead of traditional fossil based feedstocks, to make manufacturing more sustainable and in addition provide new opportunities for Scottish agriculture – both key components of a low carbon economy and the Biorefinery Roadmap for Scotland.

“It is important that we work on solutions that are holistic and sustainable in every sense and I look forward to learning more as the project takes shape as it has huge potential for the future.”

Professor Derek Stewart, AgriFood Business Sector Lead at The James Hutton Institute added: “This is an exciting opportunity for the Scottish Bioeconomy, an underpinning part is which is the agriculture sector. Scottish farming is progressive and a resurrection of sugar beet production could both diversify farm incomes whilst helping to deliver to the Scottish Climate Change targets.”

Ian Archer, Technical Director at IBioIC said: “Biotechnology is the technology that underpins the bioeconomy enabling the creation of new products and new processes to replace those we currently make from fossil-based resources.

“We currently import all of the bioethanol blended into forecourt petrol from England and France (the “E5” sticker we see on a petrol pump means the fuel has 5% bioethanol mixed into the petrol).

“Initially, Scottish sugar beet can be used as a raw material to provide a secure source of Scottish bioethanol from a local supply chain.

“In time, the supply chain around the production of industrial grade sugar syrup from sugar beet will draw high value manufacturing companies and entrepreneurs to Scotland to set up new facilities that use biotechnology to produce materials, medicines and other everyday products from this sustainable natural resource.

“Successfully reinstating a local source of sugar beet will enable the biotechnology sector to flourish in Scotland and with it, contribute to a just transition to a low carbon economy.”

Megan Welford from RISS added: “RISS is an open, constructively critical forum for stakeholders to discuss bold innovation and economic development projects. The initiative provides funding for a facilitator to work with a small group which will give farmers an opportunity to investigate this opportunity with others in the supply chain, supported by agencies and expertise to draw up a plan for the next steps to take the project forward”.

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