Country life · Food & Drink · Harvest · Sugar

Sugar: From British beet to bake…

This morning I awoke to a tweet on my phone’s screen which simply said, £27/t.

It meant nothing to me, but a little digging revealed the news that NFU Sugar and British Sugar have announced a one-year sugar beet contract for 2022.

It means that beet farmers will receive a fixed sum of £27 a tonne for next year’s crop – up 33% from this year’s figure which stands at £20.30 per tonne.

It was a timely piece of news for me as I’ve been wanting to write about sugar produced from beet for some time. Last year I spent a day on a Norfolk farm following the beet harvest boys and, over the coming weeks, I’ll be looking into the nature of the sugar beet industry, and how the gnarly root vegetable makes its way from the fields of East Anglia into our kitchens. I’ll even try making my own. So to kick off, let’s turn back to today’s news…

Across East Anglia thousands of farmers supply around 8 million tonnes of sugar beet to British Sugar during the harvest season which runs from early autumn through to spring.

And, while the 2022 price per tonne could be seen as a triumph for beet farmers – recent growing conditions have seen many growers turn their back on the crop – some may feel it is still not enough to counter the risks beet farmers face.

But it seems, on the whole, those who continue to farm the crop see it as a fair deal in the current climate – and one that secures those employed by the sector going forward.

The deal was brokered between the National Farmers Union sugar board and British Sugar – the sole processor of the UK’s homegrown sugar beet crop.

Over recent years, growing conditions for sugar beet – which is predominantly grown in East Anglia and the East Midlands – have been trying to say the least.

Incessant winter rain, that has continued into spring, has made harvesting problematic – causing yields to fall.

Disease (virus yellows in particular) continues to severely impact crops – last year some sugar beet growers reported yield losses of up to 80 percent due to virus yellows.

Soil structures have been damaged due to late harvests – whilst sugar beet itself generally improves soil structure (it is deep rooting and can dry the soil to depth) tonnes of soil can be lost per hectare due to the harvest time for beet, which often coincides with wet conditions.

Lastly, logistical issues continue to bother the industry and most recently this has been heightened by HGV driver shortages with farmers expected to see haulage delays to factories.

The chairman of the NFU Sugar has said that the set price for 2022 reflects the increased costs and risks that sugar beet growers face.

British Sugar says the company is ‘really pleased’ to announce the increase.

But, when we’re shopping many of us may be unaware of the processes our food goes through to reach the shelves – particularly sugar.

If you buy a bag of Silver Spoon (the retail arm of British Sugar) emblazoned across the bag it reads: ‘the sugar beet travels directly from farm to local factory – an efficient journey from field to spoon (28 miles)’.

In fact, the harvested beet crop travels an average of 28 miles to one of four advanced manufacturing plants in Bury St Edmunds (Suffolk), Cantley (Norfolk), Newark (Nottingham) and Wissington (Norfolk).

The beet is then washed, sliced and mixed with hot water to extract the sugar. It’s then filtered, heated and seeded with tiny sugar crystals which grow into the desired size. The crystals are then washed, dried and cooled, that’s it – the process of homegrown sugar in a nutshell.

The fact is that sugar from beet has impressively low food miles.

The new deal for 2022 also includes a local premium for all growers up to 28 miles from the nearest factory. Starting at £2 a tonne for growers up to nines miles, it then reduces on a linear scale down to 10p a mile up to 28 miles.

Compare that to Silver Spoon’s biggest rival Tate and Lyle and you have a very different story.

Tate and Lyle’s sugar is produced from sugar cane – a member of the grass family that grows in tropical and subtropical climates.

Belize in Central America offers up one of their main sources of raw sugar. Once harvested the cane is transported to sugar mills in Central America and processed for shipping to European refineries – located in London, Portugal and Italy. Belize to the UK is more than 5,000 miles.

The sugar cane travels in cargoes on large ships which carry as much as 42,000 tonnes a go and primarily these dock outside Tate and Lyle’s Thames Refinery in our capital, one of the largest sugar refineries in the EU.

It is for this reason alone that I will always pick up a packet of Silver Spoon sugar. That and the fact that buying Silver Spoon will continue to support agriculture in the East of England. In the past, when I’ve told family and friends ‘Silver Spoon is British and grown from beet, Tate & Lyle is grown from cane in the tropics’ many are astounded and didn’t realise the difference in processes and raw materials.

Technically, cane sugar and beet sugar are chemically identical.

For home cooking and baking there is little difference in terms of performance and output.

Pastry chefs may tell a different story though, some edge towards cane sugar as it caramelises better – some say this difference lies in trace minerals found in the two plants but more likely it’s claimed to be due to a difference in moisture levels.

Either way, here at home sugar is sugar and where entirely possible it’s British sugar you’ll find in my pantry.

This year’s beet season is already underway with both the Suffolk factory in Bury St Edmunds and the Newark, Nottingham factory already open – the two Norfolk factories at Wissington and Cantley are due to open in the coming weeks.

According to the Met Office, we’ve had the dimmest August in East Anglia since 1968 – the first look at beet yields is indicating slightly lower than normal levels with an improving outlook – all we need now is a prolonged period of sun to boost beet sugar content.

In the coming weeks and months East Anglia will hopefully be awash with sugar beet harvesters, transporters and hauliers as this year’s campaign flows into full force and I for one will be cheering them on.

Next up in my sugar diaries, I’ll be sharing what I found out on my day harvesting sugar beet with a north Norfolk farm.



2 thoughts on “Sugar: From British beet to bake…

  1. Over here (Australia) my home state of Victoria had a sugar-beet industry up to the end of the 19th century. It broke down after Federation with the rise of sugar cane in Queensland. One of my favourite running trails is along the route of a long-vanished rail line which was laid down to service a beet processing factory!

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