Andreas Marggraf, a German chemist from the 18th Century, is best known for isolating zinc in 1746 – an important discovery that made it possible to galvanize steel and iron to prevent rust.
The researcher’s other contribution: Determining how to extract sugar from beets.
His student, Franz Achard, took this second discovery and built an industrial method for beet sugar production. By 1801, Napoleon had opened schools in France where researchers studied the plant and the process to produce mass quantities of beets to bypass British blockades that were blocking critical cane sugar deliveries.
An industry was born and quickly migrated to America where it would flourish.
Sugarbeets were discovered by science, and research has driven the plant’s path to consumers’ dinner tables ever since.
Today, the mantle of sugarbeet research is proudly carried on by Paul Pfenninger, a scientist with 40 years of experience who leads the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists (ASSBT).
From the seed to the packet of sugar on a restaurant table, ASSBT’s mission is to foster sugarbeet research and widely communicate results so they can be applied by all. The organization brings together top minds from academia and the private sector to constantly improve production efficiency and minimize environmental impact.
“The ASSBT and the Beet Sugar Development Fund (BSDF) coordinate research of sugarbeet companies in the U.S. industry,” Pfenninger said. “It’s an important job that means a lot to me. You can do all the research you want, but if no one knows about it then it’s not doing any good.”
Pfenninger, who was raised on a small farm in Bay County, Mich., between the unincorporated towns of Crump and Willard, retired as vice president of agriculture for the Michigan Sugar Company in 2015. He has seen a lot of changes in the industry since he graduated with a biology major and a chemistry minor from Central Michigan University in 1977.
One of the biggest developments during that time was the development of a bioengineered sugarbeet seed that is resistant to weed-killing herbicides.
“That has absolutely been a game changer because instead of spraying crops five and six times during the growing period, farmers only have to spray twice,” Pfenninger said. “It has made sugarbeets a more viable crop and improved soil erosion by about 100 percent. The ASSBT and BSDF were instrumental in helping bring research on these seeds to the forefront and helping growers switch to GM seed.”
In addition to the introduction of genetically modified seed, Pfenninger said some of the other game changers he has seen in the industry include:
- Seed improvements to promote disease resistance;
- Tighter row spacing, allowing for more plant production on less land;
- Improved technology enabling longer storage of beets before processing;
- Reduced need for tilling and plowing because of new varieties and techniques; and
- More efficient harvesting with improvements like self-propelled harvesters.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The ASSBT oversees publication of the Journal of Sugar Beet Research – a peer-reviewed collection of scientific research dating back to the 1950s that ASSBT has made searchable on its website. It is a catalogue of every major scientific breakthrough and minor industry improvement of 70+ years.
The ASSBT and BSDF also conduct agronomic research trials, maintain several test plots, and sponsor schools where farmers, students and company staff can perfect sugarbeet processing and growing techniques.
This level of scientific investment is one reason that beet yields are up so sharply in just the past 20 years – farms are now producing 4.56 tons per acre, up from just 3.24 tons in 1999. Meanwhile, the amount of land devoted to sugarbeet farming is down from 1.53 million acres two decades ago to 1.1 million today.
“Simply put, science and research are letting us do a lot more with a lot less,” Pfenninger observed.
Despite many of the improvements he has seen in the industry, Pfenninger says there are still several challenges, including the threat of policymakers passing arbitrary rules that could harm growers, their farms, and the processing facilities they own.
“A big part of what we do is acting as a conduit between industry and growers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” Pfenninger said. “There is no question that there’s need for regulations, but those regulations need to be reasonable and scientifically justifiable.”
And it’s clear that the modern-day sugarbeet industry has a whole lot of science on its side.