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An introduction to Sugar Beet

Sugar beet is an important crop of arable rotations throughout the major growing regions of the UK. Commonly grown in conjunction with wheat, barley or pulses, sugar beet provides a valuable break crop returning organic matter to the soil and preventing the build up of disease. The root of the beet has a sugar content of around 17% and in the UK provides over half of the sugar we use. The balance comes from sugar cane that grows in tropical and semi-torpical regions of the world.

precision drill Sugar beet is sown from early March onwards and the operation is normally completed by early April. The seeds are sown in rows (drilled) 50cm wide, at a typical spacing of 18cm and between 2.5 and 3.0cm deep. Nitrogen fertiliser is applied to suit soil and crop requirements and herbicides are used to control weeds during the early stages of the plant's growth. Today, beet farming takes place mainly in the Eastern areas of England, from Yorkshire to Essex, and in the West Midlands.

young plants

Beet has been grown for food and fodder since ancient times. However, it was not until 1747 that Andreas Marggraf, a German chemist, succeeded in extracting sugar from beet in a form which could be used in cooking. During the Napoleonic Wars the British Navy blockaded French ports preventing sugar cane from being imported so that through necessity sugar beet farming started in mainland Europe. By 1880, beet was the main source of sugar in Europe.

developing sugar beet The beet industry took off here in the 1920s for two main reasons: firstly to make Britain more self-sufficient in sugar production after severe shortages during World War I (1914-1918); and secondly to boost the depressed agricultural industry by giving farmers the opportunity to grow a valuable cash crop. Today some 8,500 farmers are responsible for growing the crop which extends to around 170,000 hectares. The crop yields around 10 million tonnes of fresh beet that produces 1.4 million tonnes of sugar and 750,000 tonnes of animal feed.

cross section In the growing and harvesting of sugar beet, timing is critical. The harvesting period, known as the 'campaign' amongst farmers, takes place between September and Christmas when the amount of sugar in the beet is at its highest. As late season growth declines, the pace of harvesting quickens to ensure the crop is safely gathered in before the onset of damaging winter frosts.

harvesting Harvesters cut off the top leaves of the sugar beet which are used as animal feed for cattle and sheep or are ploughed back into the land as a natural fertiliser. The root is then cleaned to remove any soil attached to it before it is transported. Roots awaiting delivery to the factory from December to February are stored in protected storage to maintain the highest possible quality and sugar content.

sugar beet at the factory Because beet is a heavy and bulky crop, transport distances are kept as short as possible to reduce costs. The sugar factories have therefore been built in the beet growing areas and they are all located close to large towns, which can provide the workforce required. On arrival at the factory the beet is cleaned in large tanks of water that remove stones, weeds and other debris before being chopped into slices called cossettes.

Processing The cossettes are then mixed with the hot water at around 70°C for a period of time and the sugar of the beet passes from the plant cells into the surrounding water by a process known as diffusion. The resulting brown liquid is then filtered and boiled under vacuum conditions to produce a thick syrup in which crystals start to appear. Tiny sugar crystals called "seeds" are then added to encourage crystalisation and the resulting crystals are separated from the syrup in a centrifuge. These crystals are then granulated to produce sugar as we know it.

British Sugar We gratefully acknowledge the support of British Sugar in the production of this article.

Statistics for Sugar Beet

Sugar Beet
Sugar beet - area
(000 hectares)
173 177 169 162 154 148 130 125 120 114 118
Sugar beet - holdings
8.1 7.4 6.5 4.9 4.9 4.9
Production area sugar beet
(000 hectares)
173 177 169 162 154 148 131 125 120 114 119
Production volume sugar beet
(000 tonnes)
9079 8335 9557 9296 8850 8687 7400 6733 7641 8457 6484
Sugar beet value production
(£ millions)
252 256 283 283 298 269 178 162 208 246 198
Yield - sugar beet
(tonnes / hectare)
52.5 47.0 56.5 57.3 57.5 58.5 56.6 53.8 63.8 74.0 54
Price sugar beet
(£ / tonne)
28 31 30 30 33 31 24.1 24.0 27.3 29.1 30.5
Total new supply - sugar (refined)
(000 tonnes)
1871 1832 2197 1818 1824 1879 1627 1798 1998 2081 1812
Production as % UK use sugar (refined)
71 67 65 77 74 71 71 58 60 62 55
UK production - sugar (refined)
(000 tonnes)
1341 1157 1049 1192 1280 992

June Census statistics for Sugar Beet

Sugar Beet
Sugar beet
140,170 130,158 168,444 169,699 182,100 211,603 194,245 172,809