Scotland’s once-great sugar industry could be set for revival as the search scales up for new ways to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

A cross-industry steering group has been talking to farmers about planting sugar beet in the east of Scotland to produce ethanol as a feedstock for chemical manufacturing.

Beet was a sizeable industry in Scotland and a processing plant at Cupar in Fife endured recession and war before it was finally closed on economic grounds in 1971.

Most manufacturing relies heavily on carbon and energy from fossil fuels, producing the carbon dioxide emissions thought to be the major contributor to global warming. Using carbon sourced from plants, and renewable energy, instead reduces CO2 emissions significantly.

Sugar is converted through fermentation into ethanol, a platform molecule, which can be further converted into a range of bio-based products such as biochemicals, bioplastics and biofuels previously derived from fossil fuel-based petrochemicals.

A report funded by Scottish Enterprise and produced by Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) concluded in November 2021 that growing sugar beet as a net-zero feedstock would create jobs, drive opportunities for agriculture, boost industrial biotechnology and ‘secure a biobased alternative to fossil carbon for Scotland’s manufacturing sector’.

Experts involved in producing the report, Sugar Beet: A Just Transition for the Chemicals Sector and a Net Zero Solution for Manufacturing, have been talking to farmers in Angus and Fife about reviving the crop to help bring about a low-carbon economic transition.

Sugar beet is grown as a break crop, providing a rest from cereal crops that dominate most arable rotations. This provides diversity to help reduce disease, pest and weed levels and to improve soil health.

Trials are being conducted this year to test quality, yield volumes and the effects of harvesting on soil condition in what has been an unusually wet season. Farmers will want to be satisfied that growing the winter crop (a) is consistent with good soil stewardship and (b) would generate sufficient revenue to warrant their involvement.

Farmer feedback has suggested the sugar beet crop margin would need to be higher than alternative break crops to justify the risk of switching to sugar beet that is harvested throughout the winter. The price per tonne of £35 mentioned in the report is likely to be at least £50 or more now, considering rising costs and expected returns more than two years on.

Industry representatives have also been consulted about the possibility of establishing a bioethanol plant to produce nature-based chemicals for the production of plastics and it is through those talks are ongoing.

Developing a new sustainable feedstock would help safeguard some of the thousands of chemical industry jobs, said the report, adding that Grangemouth’s petrochemicals site is home to most of Scotland’s chemical manufacturers.

Petroineos, which owns an oil refinery at the site, is to cease operations there as early as 2025, though the company, a joint venture between the Chinese state-owned oil firm and Ineos, has said it would also explore low-carbon options including refining biofuels there. Ineos was contacted for comment.