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Pilot project looks at growing sugar beet

By David Porter

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The re-introduction of sugar beet production to Scotland a move that could support national climate change targets, create green jobs, and unlock new economic opportunities has taken a significant step forward after the pilot project laying its foundations received new funding.

With the first successful crop in half a century harvested earlier this year, the consortium behind the sugar beet initiative – which includes the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), SAC Consulting (part of SRUC), and Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS) – has secured a funding boost from Scottish Enterprise to analyse its potential environmental, societal, and economic impact.

The study will examine the widespread benefits that are expected to follow on from the crop’s return to Scotland. Sugar beet is seen as a key building block for the development of sustainable supply chains and a ‘bioeconomy’, which uses natural materials instead of petrochemical compounds in manufacturing.

A local source of sugar beet could pave the way for the development of an ethanol-producing biorefinery in Grangemouth – the hub of Scotland’s chemicals and petrochemical processing industries – and later support a fully functioning bio-based chemicals industry.

Sugar beet can be used in the production of ethanol as a natural and sustainable substitute for petroleum-based chemicals used in a range of household goods, as well as antibiotics and therapeutic proteins.

Demand for ethanol in Scotland is expected to double in the coming years to more than 100 million litres, yet all of the country’s supply is currently imported from Europe.

Iain Riddell from SAC Consulting said: “We welcome the Viability Study funding, which gives our Sugar Beet Working Group the opportunity to further investigate agronomy, harvesting logistics, refining and by products, and most importantly, the investment required and support mechanisms that could credit sugar beet growers for their contribution to industrial carbon savings that help achieve Scotland’s Net Zero targets.

“We are confident we can grow and harvest sugar beet on better land in the East of Scotland with group members already growing it for use in AD Plants, and are exploring the potential of localised micro-processing plants as an option for onward transportation of concentrated sugar syrup rather than the bulky sugar beet crop.

"Much will depend on government support, investor interest and the offer of long-term contracts that encourage farmers to commit to growing the crop.”

Andrew Henderson of Scottish Enterprise’s advanced manufacturing team said: “This is a hugely exciting project which could yield transformational outcomes for businesses.

“Our funding will help unlock a vital next step for this project to support sustainable fuel and chemicals production through biotechnology, and ultimately create new jobs and investment to strengthen communities across Scotland.

“Sugar beet production can also help deliver our green economic recovery and transition to a net zero economy, through benefits like better air quality via carbon capture, and enhanced quality of soil.”

Ian Archer, technical director at IBioIC, said: “Growing sugar beet in Scotland once again is a huge opportunity to re-invent the economy, build sustainability into manufacturing supply chains, and secure jobs for the future.

"Many of the biggest consumer goods manufacturers have committed to net-zero caron targets over the next two decades and a big part of that drive will be replacing the use of petrochemicals with natural materials.”

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