Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Broom's Barn Research Station (O50)


  This submission is from Broom's Barn, the national centre for sugar beet R&D, whose role is to improve the productivity, profitability and environmental impact of sugar beet production in England. The submission concentrates on the environmental impact of beet, and how this will change if beet becomes unprofitable.

    —  Beet is always grown as a spring-sown "break" crop in rotation with other crops, most of which are winter cereals.

    —  The beet crop therefore provides diversity in the arable landscape, contributing support to many bird species, some of which are already in decline.

    —  Because beet is a break crop, it helps to maintain yield and reduces the need for fertilizer and pesticide in other crops in the rotation.

    —  Pesticide use in beet is relatively benign and no beet pesticide has caused a breach of the Environment Quality Standards for surface or ground water.

    —  Significant nitrate leaching into surface or ground water from beet is rare, unlike leaching from cereals and potatoes.

    —  If beet ceases to be profitable, we believe it will be replaced by combinable winter crops, leading to a major loss of habitat diversity and increases in problems associated with pesticide use.

    —  Soil erosion from beet fields is not a serious problem and would probably not improve if other crops replaced beet.

    —  The energy efficiency of sugar beet production is such that it is an attractive candidate for a bio ethanol feedstock; its production would provide the same environmental benefits as beet produced for sugar, over an additional area.

    —  The alternative to sugar from beet is sugar from cane, whose environmental profile, even in the most sophisticated cane producing areas, is not blameless. Many old, persistent, toxic agrochemicals are used.

    —  There is scope to improve the environmental profile of beet still further and we have an active R&D programme to achieve this.

  In conclusion, as a break crop beet improves the environmental impact of the whole rotation and it adds diversity to the landscape that helps to support a range of wildlife, much of which is already in decline. To provide these benefits via an agro-environment scheme instead of the beet crop would be very expensive for the taxpayer.


  Broom's Barn Research Station is the UK's national centre for sugar beet agriculture and is an integral part of Rothamsted Research, the world's oldest agricultural research institute. Rothamsted Research is sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, but most of the work at Broom's Barn is funded by the UK sugar industry (growers and the processor). Our research portfolio covers aspects of crop production and profitability, reducing costs and pesticide inputs and minimising the environmental impact of crop production through developing sustainable systems. Broom's Barn is the largest sugar beet research station in Europe, employing 13 postdoctoral research scientists, 12 graduate scientists and appropriate support staff.

  This submission concentrates on the impact of sugar beet crop production on the environment of beet producing farms in England, and on how this could change if the crop ceases to be profitable. There is a brief statement about the environmental impact of sugar cane production. The submission is divided into the following topics:

    1.  Indirect effects of including beet in the mix of crops on farms, providing diverse habitats for fauna and flora.

    2.  Direct effects of beet in a crop rotation.

    3.  The direct effects of growing beet as opposed to other crops.

    4.  Potential of beet crops for bioenergy production.

    5.  The environmental impact of sugar from cane.

    6.  Research to improve the environmental profile of beet still further.

1.   Indirect effects of beet crops in the arable landscape

  1.1  Beet, by regulation and for the reasons of sustainable pest and disease control, cannot be grown on the same piece of land any more frequently than every third year: the average frequency is between four and five years. Therefore the area of the crop (170,000 ha per year) has an influence on the environment of about 760,000 ha and on 7,700 holdings[38] Thus, beet must be grown in rotation with other crops, and this ensures a diverse range of habitats.

  1.2  The most common crops grown on beet producing farms are winter cereals (wheat and barley). In local authority wards with more than two beet growers, 66% of the arable area is winter crops[39] These are sown in September and October for harvest during the next July and August. This land is being prepared for sowing or is cropped for 11 months of the year. These crops have a dense canopy structure for much of the spring and early summer and are unsuitable habitats for many farmland bird species.

  1.3  More than 90% of beet is preceded by a winter cereal, so the land is not cropped from cereal harvest (August) through until the following March/April, when beet is sown. For much of this time (three to six months) the fields are undisturbed cereal stubbles, which are excellent winter feeding habitats for seed eating birds such as finches and buntings[40]

  1.4  Beet crops retain an open vegetation structure and areas of bare soil until early summer, providing nest sites for many ground-nesting birds such as stone-curlew, lapwing and skylark[41] The stone-curlew is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species whose numbers are threatened in W Europe. Beet is 63% of the area of open-canopy cropping in regions where it is grown[42]

  1.5  About half of the beet crop is harvested after mid November and the next crop is therefore not sown until spring. During this period the aftermath of the beet provides valuable food sources for geese, swans, skylarks, golden plover, lapwing, pied wagtail and meadow pipit[43] More than a quarter of the world's population of pink-footed geese feed on beet fields in Norfolk during winter[44]

2.   Environmental benefits of beet as a part of arable rotations

  2.1  Continuously growing closely related crops leads to a build up of pests and diseases which, if not controlled by other means, cause yields to decline. Arable farmers try to use "break" crops to prevent this. In wards where there are more than two beet growers, 10% of the area is beet and 63% is cereals[45] so wheat followed by another cereal is common. There is little chance to expand the area of other break crops, they are not sufficiently profitable or their market is satisfied[46] Therefore any reduction in the beet area will tend to increase the area of winter cereals. Each hectare of beet removed will tend to add 2ha to the area of second or third successive winter cereal. Second wheat crops yield about 1 t/ha less than the first and cost about £20/ha more to grow, mostly because they need more nitrogen fertilizer. First wheat yields about 20% more than continuous wheat[47]

3.   Direct environmental impacts of beet cropping

  3.1  Recent studies, funded by the beet sugar industry, examined a range of production scenarios representing more than 90% of the UK beet crop. The study concentrated on the ecotoxicity of pesticide use, pesticide and nitrate leaching, energy consumption and global warming potential.

  3.2  Ecotoxicity scores assess the risk that pesticide use will damage non-target fauna. Beet and wheat score similarly well, much better than other break crops[48] Beet's position will improve still further when aldicarb (a granular insecticide) is withdrawn from use in beet in 2005. There were no significant instances of pesticides leaching from beet fields when the production scenarios were modelled: pesticides used on beet crops have not caused failures of Environmental Quality Standards for surface or ground water[49] unlike pesticides used on winter cereals.

  3.3  Modelled nitrate leaching losses from beet were trivial, averaging 3.3kg N/ha, compared with losses from other crops which ranged from 19 to 65kg N/ha.

  3.4  Energy consumption studies took account of input manufacture (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides etc), agricultural operations, transport and machinery manufacture. Inputs ranged from 15-25GJ/ha with a mean of 20.4GJ/ha by the time the beet arrives at the sugar factory gate. This is slightly less than the average for wheat at the farm gate, and is much less than potatoes. Energy output in delivered beet ranged from 150-220GJ/ha, giving output/input ratios ranging from 6-13.

  3.5  Global warming potential considers the probable output of all greenhouse gases, expressed as tonnes of CO2 equivalent/hectare of crop. Sugar beet output is about 1.4 t CO2 eq/ha, similar to winter wheat and much less than potatoes. However, to balance this, sugar beet crops fix about 35 t CO2/ha.

  3.6  In relation to soil conservation/degradation, sugar beet used to be subject to serious wind erosion. Research has been taken up to protect the surface soil in exposed sandy and peaty soils so that, in any year since 1990, no more than 500 ha of crop were resown due to wind damage.

  3.7  Sloping fields with unstable sandy soils are prone to water erosion during storms. Water erosion does occur when beet is grown on these fields, but only small quantities of soil (0.3mm/ha) are moved and almost none of this leaves the field[50] Winter cereal crops grown on the same fields are at a similar risk of erosion[51]

  3.8  Soil adheres to sugar beet when they are harvested, but this represents only a small percentage of the weight taken to the sugar factory (4.6% in 2003). This soil is not lost, but is recycled for soil improvement, landscaping and reclamation projects.

  3.9  Water is scarce in eastern England, and water for irrigation should be reserved for the most valuable crops. Only about 5% of beet is irrigated.

  3.10  Weeds are more difficult to control in beet than in cereals and this has the advantage that some broadleaf species, like fat hen, produce many seeds in beet fields. These plants support populations of invertebrates and seeds to support populations of birds during late autumn and winter, when food is scarce[52]

  3.11  Harvest of any crop removes plant nutrients from the field, and beet is no exception. However, when beet is processed, large amounts of potassium can be extracted from molasses and recycled in a material called "raffinate". This potassium-rich fertilizer, now being marketed to beet growers[53] is a clear demonstration of a sustainable approach to use of resources.

  3.12  The sugar extraction process use lime. Once this has been used in the sugar factory it is recycled to neutralize and condition agricultural soils.


  4.1  The EU biofuels directive calls for 2% biofuels use across the EU road transport system by 2005 in order to cut CO2 emissions in the UK by about 2Mt/a. Candidate fuels are biodiesel and bioethanol. Candidate feedstocks for bioethanol are beet and wheat. Beet has a large positive energy output/input ratio and, unlike wheat, produces sugar, the most efficient feedstock for ethanol production. Beet used for bioethanol production will have the same environmental benefits in arable landscapes and cropping systems as beet produced for sugar extraction. There are significant opportunities to optimise the energy efficiency of using beet if sugar and bioethanol are produced side by side in the same factory. Concentration on wheat as a starch-based feedstock will intensify the deleterious effects of winter-cropped landscapes.


  5.1  Sugar cane is the alternative to sugar beet as the natural source of sucrose sweetener. It is grown in semi-arid tropical and subtropical environments, where its environmental profile is not blameless.

  5.2  Cane is a tall (>3m) perennial crop, in the ground for four to seven years before the next cane crop is planted. It is grown as a monoculture: in cane environments it is usually the only crop species. This has serious adverse effects on biodiversity and on the farmers' ability to control pests and diseases[54] In consequence, even with sophisticated agriculture and with sensitive environments (coastal Queensland, Everglades in Florida) pesticides have to be either persistent or applied repeatedly, sometimes from the air (eg thallium sulphate rodenticide).

  5.3  There are serious issues about pesticide pollution of ground water, rivers and coastal areas (eg diuron herbicide in Queensland). A toxic group of chemicals, organophosphates (OP's), are heavily and repeatedly used to control various boring insects. In some areas with sophisticated agriculture there are analytical services to assess whether the OP content of soil is large enough so that farmers do not reapply the materials unnecessarily. OP's are hardly used in UK beet.

  5.4  Persistent herbicides have to be used in cane to control rhizomatous grasses that spread rapidly in perennial crops: thus atrazine and asulam use is common.

  5.5  Cane grown in many semi-arid areas has to be irrigated during the dry season. In Queensland, 40% of the crop is irrigated: in Mauritius 20%. Cane is an inefficient converter of water to sugar, and in many regions this water consumption is not sustainable and is now in conflict with the water demands of the population eg for tourism.


  6.1  Current research and technology transfer efforts at Broom's Barn hold the promise of improving the environmental profile of beet crops still further.

  6.2  Research is aimed at improving the natural resistance of the beet plants to pests and diseases, using genes from beet's wild relatives. For example, research is being done to improve resistance to yellowing viruses (to reduce use of insecticides) and to foliar fungal diseases.

  6.3  A technology transfer initiative is demonstrating the wildlife, soil protection and economic benefits of leaving uncropped margins within beet fields.

  6.4  Crop management systems are being investigated to produce more weed seeds in beet crops (as food for small birds) while minimising the impact on the profitability of the whole farm rotation.


  7.1  Sugar beet is a spring break crop in rotations that are dominated by winter-sown crops. The latter do not support many of the farmland bird species that are in decline. By contrast, beet adds diversity to the arable landscape and supports wildlife because it allows stubbles to remain over winter and provides an open canopy structure in summer (favoured by stone-curlew, skylark and lapwing). Weeds in beet are difficult to control and these too provide food for wildlife. In addition, the aftermath of beet crops provide valuable feeding sites for geese, plover etc during winter.

  7.2  If beet ceases to be grown, the benefits of a diverse landscape will not be provided by other crops. Instead winter crops will cover almost all the land.

  7.3  Pesticide use in beet has a similar ecotoxicity profile to wheat and is more benign than many other crops. Beet pesticides do not feature in breaches of water quality standards. Thus, the deleterious aspects of pesticide use would, if anything, worsen if beet is replaced by other crops.

  7.4  Energy consumption by beet is similar to wheat and beet is a serious candidate as a biofuel feedstock. The crop sequesters large amounts of CO2 and has a benign global warming profile.

  7.5  Sugar from cane is the alternative natural sweetener, but the environmental profile of cane is not blameless.

  7.6  There is research to improve the environmental profile of beet still further. However, if beet ceases to be attractive, farmers will probably turn to wheat or rape, neither of which provide the diversity benefits of beet. To provide these benefits by direct payments to farmers, perhaps via an agro-environment scheme, will be very expensive.

31 March 2004

38 Back

39 Back

40   Response from English Nature to DEFRA consultation on reform of CAP sugar beet regime. Consultation No 03/04-216.Vickery, J & Atkinson, P (2004). The value of post harvest sugar beet land for birds. British Sugar Beet Review 71 (4), 27-29. Back

41   A Response from English Nature to DEFRA consultation on reform of CAP sugar beet regime. Consultation No 03/04-216. Back

42 Back

43   Response from English Nature to DEFRA consultation on reform of CAP sugar beet regime. Consultation No 03/04-216. Back

44   Gill, J A; Watkinson, A R and Sutherland, W J (1996) The impact of sugar beet farming practice on wintering pink-footed goose Anser brachyrhynchus populations. Biological Conservation 76, 95-100. Back

45   Response from English Nature to DEFRA consultation on reform of CAP sugar beet regime. Consultation No 03/04-216. Back

46   Lang, B (2003). Report on Farming in the Eastern Counties of England, 2001/2002. Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge. Back

47   Nix, J (2003). Farm Management Pocketbook. Imperial College, London. Back

48   Tzilivakis, J Jaggard, K W, Lewis, K, May, M, and Warner, D J (submitted). Environment impact and economic assessment for UK sugar beet production systems. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. Back

49   Environment Agency. Pesticides 2002: annual report of the Environment Agency pesticide monitoring group. Back

50   Evans, R (2002). An alternative way to assess water erosion of cultivated land: field-based measurements and analysis of some results. Applied Geography 22, 187-208. Back

51   Evans, R and Jaggard, K W (2003). Controlling run off and water erosion from sugar beet land: a review. A Report for BBRO. pp 36. Back

52   15 Response from English Nature to DEFRA consultation on reform of CAP sugar beet regime. Consultation No 03/04-216. Back

53   Raffinate, a new fertiliser from British Sugar. British Sugar Beet Review 72(1), 48. Back

54   Keating, B A and Wilson, J R (1997). Intensive Sugarcane Production: Meeting the Challenge Beyond 2000. CAB International, Wallingford, UK. pp 531. Back

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