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Speedi-Beet: Does it matter where the beet comes from?

The manufacture of Speedi-Beet is a unique, patented process involving a combination of moisture and thermal treatment. As such it shouldn’t really matter about the beet, should it?

The answer can be as simple or complex as you want and, in the age of globalisation, world markets and international competition, it depends on what you want from what is, currently, a co-product from the sugar industry. British Horse Feeds have taken this co-product and turned it into something special. Not only does Speedi-Beet soak rapidly and completely - and other branded products may claim to do so – but BHF is building a data base to show how different its product is, compared to others on the world market.

Returning to the question. The process of Speedi-Beet manufacture will provide a quick soaking flake, and will be a sanitised product as infra-red heating, a part of the process, will neutralise bacteria, viruses etc. If BHF simply bought beet pulp on the open market, it could not guarantee consistency of nutrients, purity of product and low environmental impact. As we work in partnership with our supplier to provide the very best raw material to manufacture into Speedi-Beet, we have safe guarded our supply and use only the very best specification for ours and the owners needs!

It is critically important to British Horse Feeds to only use the highest quality beet pulp and with increasing globalisation, it is possible to source the material anywhere in the world. Despite this, BHF only sources from the British Sugar factory at Wissington who, in their turn, only work with local contracted farmers. And this is why.

Beet Varieties

The single most emotional subject in crop varieties are whether they have been genetically modified or not. Unlike breeding programmes where desired characteristics are selected across generations, in GM material a required trait is identified on a gene expression and this is transplanted, possibly from a different species, onto the target gene. In the case of sugar beets this is an increased tolerance to herbicides, specifically glyphosate. This enables a more aggressive chemical weed control programme without damaging the beet plant. Although Roundup Ready beet is licensed to be sold in the EU, it is neither grown in the UK, nor processed at British Sugar plants.

However, in conjunction with the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO), new varieties of beet are produced and recommendations for lines given. This ensures that planned varieties help reduce environmental impact, as traits such as rust and fungal resistance can be enhanced, reducing the need for fungicides.

Geography

Sugar beets are grown in temperate zones – sugar cane in tropical areas – across the world. In terms of volume, the UK is a relatively small producer.
The Top Sugar Beet Producing Countries In The World


When looking at the world map it can be seen that there is a huge regional bias within the production figures. For example, the majority of Russian production is in the east of Siberia, and Egyptian beet in the Sinai region. Areas as diverse as Chile and Iran are beet producers. 

One of the major concerns about world beet growth would be the actual growing and harvesting management; after all beet pulp is the by-product and the main thrust is sugar production. Looking at world maps it is obvious that beet crops are grown on a wide range of soils, regions and conditions. For example, the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, which is currently investing heavily in beet production with new factories being built, has inherent problems of high probability of arsenic contamination in the ground water. Other areas of note are Chile, Argentina and the United States. Between them they account for over 40% of beet production. Although water contamination does not directly relate to feed contamination beet, being a root crop, may be susceptible to high environmental levels of arsenic. Additionally, areas of the U.S. have been subjected to mining – which leads to arsenic mineralisation – as does Poland. The UK also has high levels, but these are concentrated in the south west, an area where beet production does not occur.

The FDFA, although publishing limits in the drinking water, do not have such in feed and it does beg the question whether other countries impose a limit of this and other heavy metals in feedstuffs. The EU does have limits, 4mg/kg for beet products as well as other heavy metals. UK beet pulp falls well below these limits.
 
Growing 

Across the world beets are planted in spring (April in the northern hemisphere) and harvested from early autumn (September) onwards. Beets are grown primarily in temperate zones for two main reasons; beets are frost resistant and require a good supply of water to develop. About 50 cm of rain over the growing season is required; too little water reduces yield but too much reduces the sugar content. Although this latter does not impact on the pulp faction, poor harvests will affect supply. Obviously, areas with poor rainfall will need much irrigation and this will impact on the environmental and sustainability parameters with the resultant pulp having a lesser “green” credentials. Places, such as Iran, which suffers from water overuse and is using industrial waste water to irrigate crops (National Geographic March, 2018), may suffer to produce a sustainable crop. On a world basis Eastern North America, Europe and China have ideal rainfall levels. In the UK, over 95% of beet irrigation comes from rainfall, making it as close to an ideal environment as is possible. Other major suppliers – Russia, U.S., Egypt – would necessitate major ground water irrigation schemes, whilst Spain, Portugal and Greece need extensive irrigation programmes..

During the growing period, fertiliser use is an issue. Whilst normal and justifiable use is needed to ensure consistency of crops and their yield, there is concern about overuse of fertilisers. In Europe, for example, there has been an historical overuse of nitrogen fertilisers, as demonstrated by the picture below:

Germany, and areas of France and Poland associated with beet production have large nitrogen surpluses (>40 kg/hectare), whilst UK regions are lower at 10 kg/hectare. Similar overuse can be seen in U.S. and China.
Similar concerns have been raised for phosphorus and potash levels. Although it is difficult to assess actual levels of fertilisers used across the world, there are some positive statistics from UK production. From a review of UK beet sugar industry, sustainability report (2011), it has been shown that the use of nitrogen, phosphate and potash fertilisers, over the previous 10 years, had dropped by 40%, 73% and 54% respectively. As yields improve due to the introduction of new varieties, and efficiencies improve, fertiliser use is expected to reduce further.

Another aspect of crop production is the use of chemicals. Use of GM beets – Roundup Ready – allows increased use of herbicides and the eradication of weeds has been a long-held management technique. However, the BBRO has identified that weed emergence 8 weeks after beet growth will not impact production and provides feed and cover for wild birds. Judicious use of herbicides has seen levels drop by 50% and ongoing research has identified different modes of action for the emergence of new weeds.

Pesticide usage has dropped by 90% over the same period. Seed dressing has negated the use of follow up treatment and this, in turn, supports natural biological control. Finally, fungicide protection is administered early in the growing phase, with a second towards year end. Material for BHF factories is prepared before this second dose.

European cultivation methods are probably the lightest users of chemical products and the UK leads this trend. Additionally, dedicated supplies of beet pulp for Speedi-Beet further reduce this burden.

Harvesting

Beets are harvested during autumn; harvesters mechanically remove tops are dispense whole beets into transporters. There has been reports that glyphosate has been used as a harvest pre-treatment; this is used to desiccate green material (beet tops) or ripened cereal stems to facilitate harvesting. Although used routinely in various parts of the world, it is not used to desiccate UK beet crops.

After harvesting it is common practice to store beets at the field side, awaiting transport to the sugar factory. Within Europe there has been substantial rationalisation of the whole process from farm to table, such that distance from farm to factory has been minimised. The UK average distance is 28 miles. Delivery to Wissington is within 24 hours of harvest minimising any potential degradation or mould infestation.

Processing

The extraction of sugar from beet is standardised worldwide. The beets are cleaned, sliced and flushed with hot water to dissolve the sugar. The sugar water (molasses) then goes on for further processing.

Depending on the efficiency of process, and whether molasses is added back to the pulp, the sugar content of dried beet pulp can reach 21% (Nordzucker, Germany). Typically, the sugar content of unmolassed beet pulp is stated as 7% (Europe & Egypt), 8% (US) and 10%(Russia); Beet pulp for Speedi-Beet is guaranteed maximum 5%.

Another process that may be present, or vary, between countries is the use of pressing agents. Once the sugar has been extracted the beet pulp, with or without added molasses, it is pressed before drying with hot air in massive cylinders. The use of Calcium Sulphate (Gypsum), or Aluminium Sulphate worldwide, as a pressing agent helps remove extra moisture prior to drying. However, this can lead to some being incorporated into the beet pulp, and its presence can be detected by calcium analysis. Typically, UK beet pulp calcium is in the region of 0.8 -1.0%, similar to levels found in the US and Canada, whereas worldwide the mean value is 1.5%. Although these values do not impact nutritionally they do indicate levels of efficiency of production.

In addition, Wissington, from where British Horse Feeds source their beet pulp, has one of the lowest environmental impacts of any sugar factory in the world. Apart from efficient extraction of sugar, Wissington also produces specialist sugars – such as raffinose – biofuels and functional fibres. Waste heat, CO2 and water is used to fuel greenhouses growing ¼ of the UK’s production of tomatoes.

Beet pulp is a versatile and highly nutritious material for animal feed. Worldwide the processing of beets follows the same route, with different efficiencies and slight variations of possible use of pressing agents. Subsequently, the use of other agents downstream of the beet pulp may be used but is not relevant to the purity of the beet pulp.

However, there are many factors that do differentiate between beets grown in different areas across the world. Despite the range of sugar and calcium contents, other concerns have been addressed. The UK does not grow, or process, genetically modified beets. Geographical locations can affect the heavy metal content of beets, but growing areas in the UK are amongst the lowest in the world. Water usage in northern Europe is mainly from natural rainfall but other countries rely on surface water, or recycled water irrigation; similarly, responsible fertilisation is best for the UK with the lowest surplus in Western Europe and across the growing areas of the world. In terms of chemicals, again the UK has reduced its use of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides; for example, UK pesticide usage has dropped by 95% over recent years compared to 50% in France.

After harvest the time from farm to factory is dependent on requirement, in Europe the time frame is short with Wissington working to less than 24 hours.

All this means that British beet pulp is the freshest, cleanest and least contaminated in the world. Its production has probably the lowest environmental impact of all regions.
There are also variations within the UK. The beet pulp sourced by BHF, and processed by British Sugar at Wissington is the only product that has a guaranteed sugar level of 5% or less.

To answer the original question, yes in does make a difference where the beet comes from. By using British beets, from dedicated sources, BHF can guarantee the purity, quality and low environmental footprint of its product and, with its assured analysis, the best and most consistent specification you can achieve.