The requirement that Ireland replace almost 140,000t of oil-based transport fuel with ethanol by 2020 must inform any decision on the possible revival of the local sugar industry.
Teagasc crops scientist Professor Jimmy Burke pointed out that the EU Renewable Energy Directive of 2009 contained a mandatory target for all member states to achieve 10pc substitution of their transport energy needs from renewable sources by the end of the decade.
In plans submitted by the Irish Government to Brussels, it was envisaged that 27pc of this target, or 139,000t, would be supplied as ethanol. However, current Irish non-potable ethanol production does not exceed 14,000t.
"If there is no increase in Irish production, the country will be forced to import the remainder. This would be fraught with risk that the price of ethanol imports could increase sharply as 2020 approaches and that imports from several non-EU countries will come under pressure because of sustainability and food versus fuel concerns," Prof Burke said.
"If any new industry was to happen in the future, then it is my view that the plant would take the form of an integrated bio-refinery whose output would consist of a range of products with maximum added value including bioethanol, sugar, biogas, bioenergy with the option of using the molasses by-product from sugar extraction to produce betaine as well as ethanol.
"The use of some beet pulp as a feedstock for the production of biogas and as a source of plant heat and power could also be an option."
However, Prof Burke accepted that allowing Ireland to resume white sugar production would be a political decision which would necessitate a volte face by the EU Commission.
"The starting of a new Irish sugar beet industry would require a reversal of the EU regulations as they apply to Ireland, as this country agreed to exit sugar processing in exchange for a total of €353m in compensation," he said.
The current sugar regime looks likely to remain in place until 2015, even though sugar prices have increased sharply over the last two years and total EU sugar production is running at 12-15pc below requirements.
It is possible that sugar quotas could be abolished at the end of the current regime in 2015. However, there will be intense sugar sector lobbying to retain the status quo.
"If these changes were to take place then it could open up the possibility for Ireland to set up a bio-refinery industry including sugar production in conformity with EU regulations," Prof Burke said.
"In the period up to the closure of Mallow sugar factory in 2006, our top growers were among the best in Britain and Ireland.
"There is still scope to increase average yields up to the level of competing countries by focusing production in a compact area with high yield potential and this will be crucial if any new industry is ever to be re-established in this country.
"Many people underestimated the contribution that the sugar beet crop made to the Irish tillage sector, and that this is why there is such widespread support at the grassroots of the agricultural sector for a new beginning."
Prof Burke said it was regrettable that the processing infrastructure in Mallow was dismantled.
"This should not have happened as there were other options that were more beneficial from a national interest point of view," he said.
"However, there is no point in looking back to what might have been, we must now look to the future to see if a new industry can be established again to supply up to the total sugar requirement of the all-Irish market."
Meanwhile, a huge crowd is expected in Cillin Hill, Kilkenny, tomorrow for the third regional meeting on the possible restoration of the sugar beet industry. It begins at 8pm.
The Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture is to inquire into the 2006 closure of the Mallow plant. Greencore officials have been invited to the meeting.