In the Indian subcontinent, the cultivation of sugarcane started during the pre-historical ages. Veda, the main religious books of Hinduism, is divided into four books of which the fourth one is the Atharva Veda.
It is assumed that this book was developed about four thousand and five hundred years ago. In Hindu mythology it is mentioned that to gain physical power, gods used to drink juices of Soma plant (somrash). Nowadays, archaeologists assume that Soma plant is nothing but sugarcane. In the past, when the import and export of European countries with Asian countries increased significantly, the Europeans used to import sugars and other goods from Asia. As excellent quality sugar was produced in Bengal, East India Company used to export those sugars to European countries. In 1795, 31 thousand tonnes of sugar was exported, which was one lakh 25 thousand tonnes in 1805. In 1840, sugar production from sugar beet started in the temperate countries that reduced the cultivation of sugarcane in Bengal. Later production of jute increased which further reduced the production of sugarcane.
The cultivation of sugarcane started in Egypt in 647 A.D. and that in Spain in 755 A.D. After that its cultivation started in most of the tropical and subtropical countries. In the sixteenth century, Spain and Portugal introduced the cultivation of sugarcane in their colonies. It was introduced in the USA in the eighteenth century. At present it is cultivated in 121 countries. Brazil has the highest cultivated area of sugarcane amounting 53.42 lakh hectares; its highest yield of 85.1 tonnes/ ha is in Australia. Of the total sugar production of the world, 70 per cent is produced from sugarcane and 30 per cent from sugar beet. Sugar beet is cultivated in 45 temperate countries of the world. In the root of this crop, plenty of sucrose exists from which sugar is produced.
Though during the British regime, sugar was exported to Europe from Bengal, local production was not sufficient to satisfy the demand of the country. Therefore, sugar used to be imported from Java. When the British left the country in 1947, the East Pakistan had only six sugar mills. At that time, less than one per cent cultivable land was under sugarcane production. To increase the production of sugar, the government planned to establish new sugar mills and the number of sugar mills began to increase slowly. The main by-product of sugar mills is bagasse, which is used as fuel in the mill. Also paper, chip board, cartoon, etc. can also be produced from the bagasse. Another by-product of sugar mills is molasses from which ethanol, alcohol and other chemicals can be produced. From other by-products of sugar mills, biofuel, fertilizer, cattle feed, etc. can be produced. In spite of so many advantages, the production of sugarcane is decreasing every year. Due to non-availability of sugarcane, 15 sugar mills of Bangladesh Sugar and Food Industries Corporation (BSFIC) cannot operate in full swing, therefore, produce much less than the established capacity of those mills. Of the total sugarcane produced in the country, less than half is supplied in sugar mills; rest of those are used by farmers to prepare molasses. In 2015-16, the demand of sugar in the country was 24.39 lakh tonnes, whereas less than one lakh ton was produced in all the sugar mills.
Though sugarcane is a cash crop, farmers can earn more profit than sugarcane by cultivating vegetables, fruits and some other crops. Most farmers want to produce more than one crop in a year from one field, therefore, are not interested in producing the perennial crop like sugarcane. Farmers usually do not get proper amount of money in time after supplying the sugarcane in the mill. This is another important reason for reduction of sugarcane cultivation. In Bangladesh, the yield of sugarcane and the recovery rate of sugar from sugarcane is the lowest in the world.
The consumption of sugar in Bangladesh is increasing every year. The demand of sugar in 2015-16 has increased by 15 per cent over 2014-15.
Every year the middle class people are increasing by 20 lakhs, yearly income of each of them is four lakh Taka or above. With the increase in income, cakes, biscuits, soft drinks, pastries, confectionery foods, etc. are added to the food list, all of which contain plenty of sugar. The tendency of drinking different juices among children is increasing at an alarming rate. All the juices contain a lot of sugar. With the rapid increase in rural electrification, use of refrigerators has increased significantly. As a result, in rural areas, consumption of sweets, soft drinks and other sweet foods has increased. In rural markets, sweet shops are in abundance. In 2012, the yearly per capita consumption of sugar in Bangladesh was 7-8 kilogram (kg), which has increased to 12 kg in 2015. The same in 2015 were 19.8 kg in India, 25.7 kg in Pakistan, and 34.3 kg in the USA. From these figures, it can be inferred that the consumption of sugar in Bangladesh will continue to rise in future. To meet up the demand, five private refineries have been established, which can process 34 lakh tonnes of raw sugar per year.
Sugar beet is a root crop, which looks like turnip to some extent. Its swollen root looks like Greek word beta. Greek and Romans started cultivating this crop four thousand years ago. In the eighteenth century, a German scientist discovered that the roots of both red and white sugar beets contain sucrose. After that it is cultivated in the temperate countries for producing sugar. The main sugar beet producing countries are France, Russia, USA, Ukraine, Germany, Turkey, Poland, Italy, Britain, etc. In addition to sugar production, it can also be used as a vegetable. In Bangladesh it is cultivated in a very small area to consume it as a vegetable. Also ethanol can be produced from it, which can be used as bio-fuel by mixing with diesel and petrol. By-product of sugar beet can be used as cattle feed and fertilizer. As it is a salt-tolerant crop, it can be grown in coastal areas where most of the crops, grown in Bangladesh, cannot be grown. It can also be grown in alkaline-affected soil.
Recently hybrid varieties of sugar beet, suitable for tropical and sub-tropical climate, have been developed. Since the mid-1960’s, sugar beet has been grown in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan for producing sugar, though traditionally sugar is produced there from sugarcane. As sugarcane is a 10-14 months crop, 30 irrigations are required to grow this crop, whereas eight irrigations are required for growing sugar beet. Mainly to save water, the government has taken programmes to grow sugar beet instead of sugarcane. The Pakistan government is planning to grow sugar beet in Sindh and Punjab province. Research has shown that from the same unit of land, by cultivating sugar beet, instead of sugarcane, double amount of sugar can be produced.
In recent years, sugar and alcohol production from sugar beet has started in India. Through research, it has been found that sugar beet can be cultivated successfully in different states of India. It was possible to grow sugar beet in Sundarban area, where rice cannot be grown due to excess salinity. In Karnataka state, farmers are bringing more areas under sugar beet cultivation hoping more profit.
Bangladesh Sugarcrop Research Institute (BSRI) has been conducting research since 2002 to find the possibility of producing sugar beet as an alternate crop to sugarcane for sugar production. It has been found that sugar beet can be grown in 5-6 months. The yield of different varieties ranged from 88 to 133 tonnes per hectare. The percentage of recovery of sugar was 10-12, which was only 7.4 for sugarcane. It was found that the climate of Bangladesh is favourable for sugar beet production. It was possible to cultivate it in the salt-affected coastal areas, which is a very good aspect of sugar beet as most of the crop of Bangladesh cannot be grown in that area due to excess salinity.
It is possible to produce sugar from sugar beet in the existing sugar mills after making some modifications. In that objective, BSRI has taken a project to modify one sugar mill of BSFIC to process sugar beet to produce sugar. The first work will be to install a machine to produce juices from sugar beet. The next step will be to change all the old processing and other machinery of the mill so that the recovery of sugar will be as per desired. If the project becomes successful, then steps will be taken to cultivate sugar beet in the country including farms of existing 14 sugar mills, the area of which is six thousand hectares. As sugar beet is a profitable crop, it can be expected that farmers will come forward to cultivate sugar beet in future.
The writer is the Director General (Retd.), Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute