A field of dreams – why growing sugar beet is critical to Scotland’s future

February 8, 2022 |

By Ian Archer, technical director, Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC)

Special to The Digest

After the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, attention is inevitably turning to how each country and industry can make their contribution towards slowing the rise in global temperatures. It is widely accepted that one of the most effective ways of achieving that is through the replacement of materials normally derived from petrochemicals with natural alternatives – particularly in the chemicals sector, which produces the building blocks for a wide variety of products.

Many of the world’s biggest brands have signalled their intention to do this by setting targets for reaching net zero carbon emissions in the next decade and beyond. Unilever, Croda, L’Oréal, and AstraZeneca are just some of the world’s biggest businesses to do so, also committing to making their products with biologically based alternatives – which is, in effect, equally a gauntlet thrown down to their supply chains.

For Scotland, that means moving away from a chemicals sector that has been built on oil extracted from the North Sea towards what could ultimately become a carbon negative industry. Achieving this, as is being done in other parts of the world, will require a new feedstock on which to lay the foundations of the sector. In Brazil, the answer is sugar cane, while in the USA it has been corn – in Northern Europe, the crop to use is sugar beet.

A sweet re-introduction

Sugar beet is already grown in relatively small amounts in Scotland as a feedstock for heavily subsidised biogas production. But growing the crop on a large, commercial scale has not happened since the early 1970s when the last processing factory in Cupar, Fife, was sold and production became uneconomical. However, in 2020 a new trial of high-yielding modern varieties saw the first crop in half a century successfully harvested at a competitive yield, paving the way for its re-introduction.

The case for doing that in Scotland is clear: it can be used in the production of bioethanol as a natural and sustainable substitute for petroleum-based chemicals used in a range of household goods, as well as antibiotics and therapeutic proteins. What’s more, the introduction of the new E10 mandate for transport fuel, meaning 10% of petroleum must be blended with bioethanol, has effectively doubled the need for sustainably sourced ethanol overnight.

In short, we need a lot of ethanol. Yet, all of Scotland’s supply is currently imported from Europe. Casting a wider net, demand for ethanol across the UK is estimated at around 1.5 billion litres – with Scotland representing about 10% of that figure – but there is only the capacity to produce around 900 million litres from three facilities in England. There is a clear UK-wide shortfall that Scotland could address with the creation of a local supply of sugar beet and a new biorefinery to process it.

‘Beeting’ climate change and creating jobs

Transforming Scotland’s existing chemicals industry in this way could not only protect it for the future, but create new economic opportunities too. Many of the 11,000 jobs currently in the sector would be protected as the buyers of its products move towards sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels, while our recent report for Scottish Enterprise found that at least another 815 would be directly created, many of which would likely be in rural and deprived areas. Hundreds more could also emerge in associated supply chain and logistics services.

No longer relying on ethanol imports from overseas would also make a significant difference to Scotland’s carbon footprint. Our analysis suggested that a local supply of sugar beet and a dedicated biorefinery facility could remove 280,000 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year – the equivalent of taking nearly 61,000 cars off the road.

We also identified Dundee – for its proximity to suitable agricultural land – or Grangemouth, near Falkirk, because of its access to power generation, water treatment, a major port, and existing chemicals cluster as the optimal locations for a bioethanol plant.

A just transition for Grangemouth

Wherever the facility is located, it will be the cornerstone for ethanol production as Scotland’s gateway product. It is big enough to pique farmers’ interest in growing sugar beet and investing in the agricultural technology required to grow the crop again. This is the driver we need to develop a bio-based chemicals sector, re-aligning the industry centred around Grangemouth with the future needs of the global economy.

The carbon capture from ethanol alone is big – the 280,000 tonnes I mentioned above. But it is even greater for the entire chemicals industry in Scotland. Grangemouth produces around 200,000 tonnes of polyethylene each year, all of which comes from fossil carbon. Each tonne produced emits two tonnes of CO2 when it is being manufactured. Producing polyethylene from sugar, by contrast, actually captures the same amount of carbon, meaning we could create a carbon negative industry – a development we have already seen take place in Brazil.

That is an incredible opportunity for Scotland, both economically and environmentally, but the shift to bio-based manufacturing globally also represents an existential threat. The fact of the matter is that Grangemouth must adapt all of its sectors to a low carbon world – whether it is oil refining, the production of polymers, or speciality chemicals. If we do not do that, then the sector as a whole could stand to be made redundant.

A field of dreams?

As much as this is about growing sugar beet, it is also about re-shoring a supply chain that currently relies on farmers and industries in other countries, creating the foundation of a new bio-based Scottish chemicals industry that is fit for the future. While making that happen might seem like a decision for another day, the demand for ethanol exists now and can act as the impetus to push change forward. While the electrification of transport expected to take hold in the 2030s could temporarily reduce demand, the need for bio-based chemicals will still remain high for a long time to come.

For now, a bit like the film Field of Dreams, there is an element of build it and they will come. Chemicals producers are known to cluster around the source of their feedstock and the right infrastructure – hence why Grangemouth is the hub it is today. What we do know is that without sugar beet and a biorefinery to process it, no company is likely to even consider setting up nearby.

Ultimately, bio-based production is the future of manufacturing in a net-zero Scotland and sugar beet is the sustainable and renewable feedstock that will allow us to compete on the global stage. Not only could it safeguard many of the thousands of jobs in our existing chemicals sector, but it could create hundreds more through new opportunities and manufacturing methods.

What could be achieved has been clearly set out in economic and environmental figures, but we now have to take the first step towards a more environmentally friendly and future-proofed manufacturing supply chain, at the heart of a bioeconomy.

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