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A scientific breakthrough could provide UK farmers with environmentally friendly protection against a key sugar beet disease. Researchers at the Norwich-based John Innes Centre... Breakthrough offers hope against sugar beet virus

A scientific breakthrough could provide UK farmers with environmentally friendly protection against a key sugar beet disease.

Researchers at the Norwich-based John Innes Centre have developed a non-chemical molecular approach to protect crops against virus yellows – a disease which can reduce sugar beet yields by as much as 50%.

Research leader Dr Yiliang Ding says her team has successfully used naturally occurring ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules to design anti-viral products which target and degrade virus yellows inside sugar beet plants.

The discovery is a boost for UK growers who have struggled to control virus yellows since the routine use of neonicotinoid seed treatments was banned in 2018 over concern about their impact on pollinators.

Beneficial insects

Because the RNA technique specifically targets the virus, Dr Ding says it could protect sugar beet in a way which is safe and long-lasting – with no detrimental effect on bees or other beneficial insects.

Agronomists and growers believe the discovery could help to secure a sustainable future for the crop – one which is good for farm businesses and for the environment, as well as for the wider economy.

Virus yellows is a complex of three viruses transmitted by aphids. Once it takes hold, the virus reduces the photosynthetic capacity of sugar beet leaves, reducing the crop’s yield and sugar content.

Sugar beet yields have fallen since the neonicotinoid ban.

A virus yellows epidemic in 2020, for example, saw yields plummet by 25% compared with the five-year average, costing the industry more than £65m, according to Defra figures.

Emergency use

Although the government has authorised the emergency use of neonicotinoids under strict conditions when the virus yellows risk is deemed high, environmental campaigners continue to warn against their use.

Instead, growers have been trialling alternative methods of combating the disease – with varying degrees of success. Cover crops, for example, have helped repel aphid populations but hampered growth of young beet plants.

The latest findings have received international recognition.

Earlier this year, Dr Ding became the first UK plant scientist to receive a Blavatnik Award, recognising her work in the life sciences and the potential of RNA technology to improve plant health and yields.

Dr Ding said: “It’s wonderful that the global community has recognised the importance of plant science in trying to solve the critical challenges of feeding the world, improving crop yields, and combating plant health threats.”