I am writing to you to submit British Sugar’s evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry on Soil Health. We are keen to highlight our support for this inquiry and to provide information on how British Sugar is working with its growers to manage soil health and sustainability in the East of England.


As you may be aware, the British beet sugar industry grows, processes, and delivers high quality local sugar to over 50% of the UK market, and exports across the world. The industry supports 9,500 UK jobs and is involved with 7,000 UK suppliers. British Sugar works in partnership with around 3,000 growers, processing around eight million tonnes of sugar beet each year. Our circular economy approach leads to less than 200g of waste for every tonne of sugar produced and, together with our growers, we continue to play an important part in managing, protecting, and enhancing the natural and farmed environments.

At British Sugar, we are seeking to protect ecosystems and soil health. Our ambition is to strengthen the resilience and efficiency of our agricultural supply chains to ensure that crop yields and quality meet consumer need.

Over the past 30 years, sugar yields expressed on a per hectare basis have grown on average at 2% per year. Yield increases have been achieved with fewer inputs per hectare of fertiliser and pesticides. Not only has the industry maintained and improved that rate of annual yield growth but it has outstripped the rate of productivity increase in all other arable crops grown in the UK – and protecting soil health has been a crucial factor in achieving this.

Indeed, soil health and quality are the foundation of high performing sugar beet crops. The ability of soils to drive rapid plant establishment and canopy growth, then sustain canopy persistence and photosynthesis throughout the long UK growing season, are key to unlocking yield potential. Additionally, the resilience of the soil to extreme weather events (both wet and dry) to promote growth under pest and disease pressures are vital to ensuing consistent and competitive yield performance of the UK crop.

We are keen to highlight to the Committee the work that we are undertaking to improve soil health; sugar beet often plays a vital role within the farmers arable farm rotation in terms of soil and crop health. Sugar beet acts as a ‘break’ crop in the rotation, and this means it provides a break or a rest from the more intensively farmed cereal crops that dominate most arable rotations. Having sugar beet as a ‘break’ crop also reduces the need for pesticides and returns a large amount of organic material to the soil when the tops of the sugar beet are left after harvesting. This also helps to build up soil carbon and organic matter reserves - an essential part of a healthy functioning of the soil and ecosystem.

Growers are also using new growing techniques, for example minimum tillage, where only the area where the seed is planted is cultivated. We have major trials at the Holkham Estate in Norfolk exploring the wider benefits of this practice. Again, to protect biodiversity and reduce emissions in transport and encourage soil carbon sequestration. Robots and farmdroids are also being trialled in field to support weeding and drilling as a further investment within precision farming. Further, a widely used practice with growers is to use ‘cover crops’ - multi-species crops, such as oil, radish, brassica and legumes, to support nitrogen fix, increase organic matter and protect soils from erosion due to wind and run-off.

We also invest in research that is looking at areas such as soil biology and health through the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) which is a non-profit company set up jointly by British Sugar and the National Farmers’ Union. The BBRO commissions and implements research to increase the competitiveness of the UK beet sugar industry in a sustainable and environmentally acceptable manner, and is a co-founder of the Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership which is a five-year project (2017-2022) to deliver the latest knowledge and finding on soil biology and soil health. 

Importantly the project has found that crops which are positively managed for improved soil health, produce between 15-20% more than other crops. The resilience of sugar beet crops to events, such as drought, is also improved in healthier soils. For example, in drought years, crops achieved 10-15% more of their potential yield compared to crops where soil health was not pro-actively managed and improved.

It is our belief that industry and Government must work closely together to share best practice and identify the most effective ways of managing soil health. We would therefore encourage a more open dialogue on this issue moving forward. In addition, further investment in agri-innovation will drive forward research in this space, helping to identify new techniques to manage and improve soil sustainability, and position the UK at the forefront of developing cutting edge agricultural technologies.


We thank you for the opportunity to submit this evidence to this inquiry, and very much look forward to understanding and implementing learnings from the Committee’s conclusions. Should the Committee require further information, please feel free to contact us if you have any questions or require further clarification.


February 2023