Sugar Beet: A Glimpse into Europe’s Sweetheart Crop

When we say ‘sugar beets’ here in Europe, we’re not jamming to a band from Utah—we’re celebrating the sweet crop that’s a true European staple!

Specifically, it’s a type of root from which sugar is extracted. The sugar beet (Beta vulgaris), a white beet from the Amaranthaceae family, is known for its high sucrose content and is cultivated extensively for sugar production. This crop has been grown in Europe since the 18th century and remains an important significant cash crop and commercial sugar source in many countries worldwide.

Image © Shutterstock

What do we know about sugar beets?

With a sugar concentration of 15 to 20%, sugar beet offers the highest yield among sugar-producing plants (i.e. sugar beet and sugar cane). A single sugar beet can weigh up to 1,200 grams and the water content is around 75%. The sugar content in the beets is determined also by the weather conditions in which the crop is grown.

Fig 1: Modified from Muir, 2021, Schematic view of potential enzymatic conversion pathway(s) for Sugar Beet to element sugar

A short history of sugar beet and sugar

Sugar was usually the processed product from sugarcane. But the German scientist Andreas Marggraf demonstrated that crystals derived from pulverized beetroots were identical in all properties, as that of the sugar from sugarcane crystal. This led his student Karl Achard, later known as the “father of the sugar beet industry”, to extract sugar from beets and create a global and lucrative market for commercial production.

During the Napoleonic wars, the British blockade of cane sugar shipments to Europe prompted the search for alternative sugars, leading to sugar beet breeding programs and the creation of sugar factories in France and other parts of Europe. Although France’s sugar beet industry declined after Waterloo and the end of the blockade, the development of modern sugar beets and sugar extraction techniques had already been achieved.

Sugar beet in the EU – a key crop for growers

Fig 2 (A) Sugar beet production area in 1000 hectares, (B) sugar beet yield in tonnes per hectare, and (C) number of sugar beet growers in the European Union. Modified from CEFS Statistics 2021/22

The European Union is the world’s leading producer of sugar from beet. However, beet sugar represents only 20% of the world’s sugar production, with the other 80% produced from sugar cane.

Most of the EU’s sugar beet is grown in the northern half of Europe, where the climate is more suitable. The most competitive producing areas are in northern France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Poland. The EU also has an important refining industry that processes imported raw cane sugar.

In the European Union (EU), sugar beet areas have declined constantly through the last four years (2018-2022) by 0.3% (Fig 2A). This decrease occurred despite higher beet prices due to the recovery of the EU market price for white sugar, which has been above the EU threshold of EUR 404 per tonne since September 2021 (CEFS Statistics 2021/22). The average sugar beet yield in the EU for the period 2011-12 to 2021-22 is 11.29 tonnes per hectare (Fig 2B). However, sugar beet growers in the EU region have also seen a steady decline from 2011-12 to 2021-22 (Fig 2C).

But according to the CEF Statistics, the EU sugar production revived in 2021-22, from its downscale brought about by the beets yellow virus. EU produced 16.2 million tons of beet sugar during the 2021/22 campaign – an increase of 14.4% from the previous year and the highest level since 2017/18. Favorable weather conditions are considered as the reason for this positive development.

Pests and pathogens threatening sugar beet

Sugar beet is a perennial crop and highly chemical-intensive. A major parasite affecting sugar beets is the sugar beet nematode, Heterodera schachtii, which causes significant stand and yield reductions.

Cerospora Leaf spot (Image ©Shutterstock)

Cysts containing eggs of this nematode may remain viable in irrigated fields for several years. These cysts may survive even longer in fallowed soil. Nematicides are commonly used to control H. schachtii, particularly in short rotations and when the cyst population is above the damage threshold level before planting sugar beets.

The Cercospora leaf spot (CLS) caused by the fungal pathogen Cercospora beticola, is another destructive pathogen of sugar. It infects leaves and they develop circular lesions with tan to grey centers and bordered reddish-purple rings.

Syndrome des Basses Richesses (SBR) is a bacterial yellowing disease of sugar beet that reduces the sugar content of the root tissue significantly. There is currently neither a cure for the disease nor effective control measures for the main insect vector, the Cixiid planthopper Pentastiridius leporinus.

The main pesticides used in the sugar beet sector are neonicotinoid insecticides and (to a lesser extent) herbicides. In 2020/21 neonicotinoid insecticides were allowed on sugar beet fields but in 2023, it was withdrawn (clothianidin, thiamethoxam, etc) from the market due to its ban in Europe. With new resources available, some sugar beet farmers in France have started to transition to organic farming, avoiding the use of synthetic insecticides altogether with the help of robots.

Policy matters

The EU sugar market was heavily regulated until 2017 when new policies were introduced. In Austria, the AGRAR Universal insurance covers various crops against risks like hail, frost, and storms. However, due to the complexity of assessing losses for sugar beet, classic drought insurance isn’t available. Instead, the ‘drought index’ insurance was introduced for sugar beets in 2016-2017. The EU’s key regulations for sugar beet include the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which provides subsidies and support for farmers. The abolition of sugar production quotas in 2017 increased competition and market-driven production. Environmental regulations, such as Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009 on pesticide use and the Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC), aim to reduce pollution and promote sustainable practices. The EU also encourages Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and supports sugar beet for bioethanol production under the Renewable Energy Directive. Cross-compliance measures link CAP payments to environmental and public health standards.

Other uses of sugar beet

Sugar beet is also used for animal feed, with the pulp from juice extraction serving as livestock food. In Europe, particularly in the Czechia, sugar from beet pulp is mixed with rum to produce Tuzemák, a liqueur invented in the 19th century, used in mixed drinks and baking.

Additionally, sugar beets produce molasses for various culinary applications. Recognized as a preferred renewable feedstock for a future biobased circular economy, sugar beet offers one of the highest carbohydrate yields per hectare. Its accessible sugars make it ideal for bioconversion.

Cultivated as food and feed in Europe for over 200 years and in the USA for about 100 years, sugar beet’s potential has only recently gained significant attention. This resource is crucial for both traditional uses and emerging biotechnological applications.

Tuzemák (Image ©Shutterstock)

In the EU, the high sugar prices might drive a shift towards alternative sweeteners like isoglucose. However, the prices of wheat and corn, the primary raw materials for isoglucose, have also increased. As a result, consumers and manufacturers may need to explore other innovative sweetening solutions or diversify their sources to mitigate costs and ensure stable supply chains.

Molasses from Sugar beet (Image ©Shutterstock)

Sugar beet will remain an important crop for Europe. Despite the fluctuations in sugar prices and the rising cost of alternative sweeteners, sugar beet is well-suited to Europe’s diverse climate, making it a reliable and resilient crop. As the demand for locally sourced and sustainably produced ingredients grows, sugar beet cultivation rises, reducing dependence on imported sweeteners and contributing to rural economies. Additionally, sugar beet cultivation promotes crop rotation, which enhances soil health, and reduces pest pressure thus lowering the need for chemical fertilizers. Consequently, sugar beet’s multifaceted benefits will likely sustain its significance in Europe’s agricultural landscape.

SAGROPIA project focuses on safeguarding sugar beet crops through the integration of cutting-edge solutions and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies, promising advancement in farming practices in Europe. By collaborating with esteemed partners such as Südzucker and the Verband Bayerischer Zuckerrübenanbauer e.V, SAGROPIA is poised to deliver biological innovations that effectively combat pathogens and bolster crop resilience. This initiative not only aims to enhance the sustainability and productivity of sugar beet cultivation but also underscores the importance of fostering robust agricultural systems for the future.

Reneema Hazarika
Communication and Dissemination Manager
RTDS-SAGROPIA

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