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British Sugar closes down as the future opens up

Friday 13 October 2006

As hundreds of Yorkshire farmers face a bleak future because of the decision to close the British Sugar plant near York, our countryside and rural affairs commentator John Sheard says this is yet another example of an industry closing down just as a new future beckons

PRESIDENT George W. Bush gets a very bad press from the greens, and indeed deserves most of it when it comes to his refusal to stamp down on America's profligate use of oil. But he has just announced a target to make that huge country produce 25% of its energy needs from … grass!

In launching the world's biggest feasibility study into the production of bio-fuels - petrol and oil-type products extracted from vegetable matter - he has asked scientists to focus their attention on fast-growing grasses which can be easily turned into fuel.

Now this news has fascinated me because I grow a lot of grass on my allotment - quiet unintentionally, that is. My grass paths are this weekend a foot high, because it has been too wet to tackle them with my cordless strimmer, and my vegetable beds are under attack from couch grass, which can strangle anything edible in a couple of weeks and, by rights at this time of the year, should be dying back.

bio fuel
Sugar, lost future fuel?

I was thinking of writing to George W saying that his scientists were welcome to help themselves to as much of my grass as they need when another item of news came up this week which rather overshadowed my horticultural musings: the fact that British Sugar is to close its sugar-beet processing plants in York and Shropshire with a loss of an estimated 3,000 jobs, 1,300 of those being the livelihoods of sugar-beet farmers.

Now I know that very little sugar beet is grown in the Yorkshire Dales, but local folk, like everyone else in the UK, are staggering under the weight of huge rises in gas and electricity costs, up as much as 100% in two years. And, although the link might not be obvious, sugar beet could in fact be one of the ingredients to save us all from penury from ever-rising fuel costs in the future.

I am not a bio-scientist but as I understand it bio-fuels can be manufactured from all sorts of vegetable matter and countries exploring this technology are obviously concentrating on plants which grow best in their particular climates.

The North American prairies - and similar habitats in Argentina and other temperate parts of South America - are good for the fast growing grasses mentioned above. In the tropical areas of South America, there are several suitable crops, including a fast-growing water lily, and already a large percentage of cars and trucks in Brazil run on bio-fuels.

Here in Britain, several methods are under investigation, some of them on the distinctly wacky side: there is one guy who runs his car on used fat from local fish and chip shops! But a few years ago, an experiment with fast-growing willow trees to fuel power stations in East Yorkshire was abandoned for reasons unknown to me (did the Government pull the funding plug?).

Recent research suggests that we have two widely grown crops with huge potential as bio- fuels: oil seed rape and (yes, you've guessed it) sugar beet. So, once again, Britain seems to be about to turn off an invaluable technology tap before it starts running.

There are probably hundreds of British inventions that have been abandoned here but taken on and developed with enthusiasm by other nations. They include the computer (taken up by the Americans), the jet engine (developed by Nazi Germany because the RAF turned it down) and, in the 21st Century, a new train system working in Singapore which has no wheels: it hovers along a magnetic rail, a system invented, of course, in the UK.

Now that we have used up most of our North Sea gas, run down our atomic power stations without deciding to replace them, and closed our coal mines, we will soon be at the mercy of Russia, which is already using its natural gas resources to blackmail its former Iron Curtain satellites.

Yet, here in the county of the broad acres, we already have a tried and tested industry able to produce bio-fuels in huge quantities and at the same time be a huge boon to the countryside rather than the curse threatened by windfarms.

But just as a new promised land looms over the horizon, we turn our backs and hurry back whence we came. Unless someone, somewhere, points out to the Government the future promise of the humble sugar beet, the sweet smell of success will once again turn sour.

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