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.
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.