Sugar beet

Humans like sugar. It tastes good to us. Here in Britain we’ve been extracting sugar from beet for a century. The harvest looks like this.

The sugar beet (Beta vulgaris subspp vulgaris) is one of several kinds of cultivated beets. Strains of B. vulgaris subspp vulgaris have been well described by plant geneticists.

In Britain and other European countries, farmers began growing sugar beet in the 19th century when the Napoleonic Wars prevented trade in sugar from sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) which requires a hotter climate than ours.

Later, the First and Second World Wars led to drives towards national self-sufficiency in food. Farmers Weekly tells us about the ‘sugar beet generation’. National Farmers Union (NFU) Sugar tells us what happened when in the sugar beet industry.

Now the sugar beet industry here is thriving, supported by the British Beet Research Organisation. This year, the weather has been hard on farmers but 2012’s sugar beet harvest is underway.

You can see why sugar beet was a close runner-up for my title of ‘Crop of the Month’. The pumpkin is a great crop but the sugar beet has become a mainstay of our agriculture.

***

[Update] I hesitated to write about sugar beet because I didn’t think many people would read. I’ve noticed an unspoken view in Britain that cane sugar is vaguely ‘better’ than beet sugar. Even that all ‘real’ sugar comes from cane. A glance at the labels on sugar and sugary products reflects this. It’s almost as though we don’t want to admit that we have a sugar beet industry.

Perhaps it’s because the sugar beet doesn’t look very glamorous. It looks like a big parsnip (Pastinaca sativa). I’m going to name the parsnip as Crop of the Month in due course, and it does have a sweet flavour, but it doesn’t look like something you might sprinkle into your coffee. Also it’s harvested in cold, muddy conditions by farmers who may not be so photogenic as the happy-looking black people featured on Fair Trade packets of ‘pure cane’ sugar. I’ll blog about Fair Trade at some point, but not in this post.

Perhaps we British are prejudiced against beet sugar because of history. In a country which prides itself on tradition, sugar beet is a bit new-fangled, isn’t it? Also many of us British people are ashamed of the slave trade, in which our ancestors were key players as were the Dutch.

Whatever leads many of us in Britain to ignore our sugar beet industry, we’re important on the world stage as a sugar producting nation. Several of the top ten sugar producing nations (scroll down that page if you’d like to see the ranking) rely on beet. We in the UK aren’t in the top ten, but we’re not far behind. One thing we can be sure of: even with climate change, we’re not likely to grow sugar cane here.

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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9 Responses to Sugar beet

  1. petrel41 says:

    More about reed sugar and beet sugar, and their relationship to the history of slavery, is at

    http://dearkitty1.wordpress.com/2007/01/06/history-of-sugar-and-slavery-at-amsterdam-museum/

  2. Carol Hague says:

    Personally I’m all in favour of sugar beet because it’s grown in this country and thus entails far fewer food miles than cane sugar does. I can’t say I’ve noticed any difference in the finished product either.

    And that’s without even touching the ghastly history of the sugar plantations and slavery.

    • argylesock says:

      Good point about food miles. And as you say, sucrose is sucrose.

      Apparently some of the brown sugars on the market (eg most demerara) are in fact dyed white sugar! The less refined ‘raw cane’ brown sugars are good eating and often available in a Fair Trade brand, as I’m sure you know, but the food miles are real. Anyway buying those products doesn’t help British farmers. I’ve never seen ‘raw beet’ brown sugar. Have you?

      • Carol Hague says:

        Dyed sugar! Good grief! That’s not on, I think.

        No, I’ve never seen raw beet sugar and an online search hasn’t helped much. Except that now, sugar no longer looks like a proper word 🙂

      • Are they dyed white sugar, or just white sugar with molasses added?

        • argylesock says:

          Thanks for asking this. Iirc the idea of ‘white sugar with brown dye’ came from Sarah Brown’s Vegetarian Cookbook. My mother liked that book in the 1980s (my father wasn’t impressed! but that’s another story) and I still have her copy along with all her other cookery books. Might get around to looking for the ‘dyed sugar’ remark in there.

          Anyway Goofle has just told me that yes, brown sugar is made by adding molasses to white sugar. I suppose that’s why some brown sugars are labelled ‘unrefined’ whereas others are just labelled ‘brown’. Goofle also tells me that there such a thing as beet molasses but that it’s different from cane molasses. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molasses#Sugar_beet_molasses There doesn’t seem to be any requirement for labels stating where the molasses used to dye white sugar comes from. If it’s from cane, we’re back to the issue of food miles.

  3. Pingback: Crop of the month: Parsnip | Science on the Land

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