Sugar beet re-introduction in Scotland 'could support thousands of jobs' and help fuel greener future

Growing sugar beet in Scotland and processing the crop at a purpose-built facility to produce an eco-friendly alternative to petroleum-based chemicals could support thousands of jobs and accelerate the nation’s net-zero ambitions, according to a new report.

A study funded by Scottish Enterprise and produced by the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) has shone a spotlight on how sugar extracted from sugar beet can be used to produce ethanol as a natural and sustainable substitute for chemicals used in a range of household goods, as well as antibiotics, therapeutic proteins, and for transport.

The study has found that at least 815 jobs could be directly created by moving towards domestically produced bioethanol as a sustainable feedstock for manufacturing, and support hundreds more through associated supply-chain and logistics services.

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The report also claimed that such a project would safeguard many of the 11,000 jobs in Scotland’s chemicals industry, which is moving towards alternatives to fossil fuels, and generate new roles in the burgeoning biotechnology sector – many of which would likely be in rural and deprived areas.

'Sugar beet is at the core of Scotland’s opportunity to develop a sustainable feedstock and compete on the global stage,' says IBioIC. Picture: contributed.

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“Switching to a local supply of bioethanol, rather than relying on importing it from Europe as Scotland currently does, could significantly reduce the country’s carbon footprint by more than 280,000 tonnes of [carbon dioxide] – the equivalent of taking nearly 61,000 cars off the road per year,” according to the document.

The latter sets an initial target of growing a million tonnes of sugar beet annually, which could in turn produce 110 million litres of bioethanol a year – expected to be around 75 per cent of Scotland’s current needs for transport.

Identified as optimal locations for a bioethanol plant are Dundee, for its proximity to suitable agricultural land, or Grangemouth, because of its access to power generation, water treatment, a major port, and existing presence of chemicals firms.

IBioIC boss Mark Bustard said: “The report underlines the scale and significance of the opportunity for Scotland through the re-introduction of sugar beet and the creation of an associated bioethanol plant.”

He also cited a new mandate that “effectively doubles our need for sustainably sourced ethanol overnight”, adding: “However, it is merely a precursor to much bigger changes ahead and sustainable indigenous sugar supply from biomass is a key component in growing a significant new cluster in Scotland.

Opportunity

“Bio-based production is the future of manufacturing in a net-zero Scotland and sugar beet is at the core of Scotland’s opportunity to develop a sustainable feedstock and compete on the global stage.”

Scottish Enterprise MD Linda Hanna said: “Hot on the heels of COP26 in Glasgow, publishing this report now is no coincidence and gives a strong message of how to take action on climate change.

“Not only can sugar beet provide a credible, sustainable, low-carbon alternative to fossil carbon for manufacturing, it can also accelerate the growth of Scotland’s biotechnology sector.

“The private sector is critical to achieving this growth by getting behind sugar beet and its potential for a wide range of bio-based products.”

Furthermore, Scotland’s Trade Minister Ivan McKee welcomed the report, adding: “The publication is especially timely as we look forward to the final refresh of the National Plan for Industrial Biotechnology, which will be published next year.”

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