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Autumn-sown sugar beet crops could be included in UK rotations in the future, but only through the development of bolting-resistant varieties using genetic engineering.

A recent British Sugar and Farmers Weekly study tour to Spain visited autumn-sown beet situated in the south of the country, and despite the milder climate being less conducive to bolting, it begs the question: could it work in the UK?

Spain currently grows in excess of 30,000ha of sugar beet, of which about 7,600ha is established in the autumn in the southern region of Andalucia.

“One of the advantages of winter beet in the south is the lower water necessity compared with spring beet, due to the use of winter rains,” says Rodrigo Morillo-Velarde, director at AIMCRA.

“Drilling in the autumn period also ensures that the maximum solar radiation coincides with maximum leaf area index, so the crop has its highest production potential.

“We do have problems with randomness of pests and diseases due to the climatic variations, high competition from weeds that germinate throughout the autumn, winter and spring and also some bolting,” he says.

Despite bolting in the unlikely event of extremely cold weather, it is something that can be controlled by using conventionally-bred varieties with bolting resistance, adds Mr Morillo-Velarde.

It is the use of the water and sunlight during the months of April, May and June with a large canopy that would appeal to UK growers, which would subsequently increase yield potential.

“It would be such a huge genetic move for the UK, as you are moving the drilling period ahead of the vernalisation conditions during the winter, so realistically, it is something that only GM technology could facilitate,” says Patrick Jarvis, best practice agriculture manager with ABSugar.

“What comes with that is all the usual problems associated with genetic engineering, such as government and public opinion. British Sugar would only use the technology if it received the approval from its customers.

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