Knowledge for Development

Repositioning the ACP sugar industries through Science, Technology and Innovation

Author: Maureen R. Wilson

Date: 23/05/2006

Introduction:

Sugarcane

Global sugar production for 2004/2005 for 110 countries was estimated to be 144 million tons. It is noteworthy that most of the sugar produced is consumed domestically and only about 25% is traded internationally with the top three sugar exporting countries, Brazil, Thailand and Australia accounting for almost 50% of world exports (Illovo, 2005). In addition to providing direct employment for over 300,000 people on estates and on smallholdings, the sugar industry provides indirect employment to hundreds of thousands of people through the value chain and by extension supports the livelihoods of millions of families who are directly and indirectly dependent on the industry. In some ACP countries, sugar is one of the most significant contributors to the national economy. For example, sugar generates over 17% of GDP in Guyana and 24% in Swaziland, while in Fiji sugar production is responsible for over 90% of agricultural output. The decision of the European Union (EU) to make changes to its sugar regime will result in significant loss of earnings by ACP countries resulting in severe hardships in their national economies. Some of the industries will be phased out but others will require considerable readjustment and modernization of both field and factory operations if they are to remain economically viable and globally competitive. The end result of phasing out and or restructuring existing operations will inevitably mean closure of some factories with the attendant loss of jobs and economic and social decline. Recognizing that most of the sugar is consumed locally, ACP countries need to further explore new income streams such as cogeneration, and ethanol production for fuel, while diversifying within traditional products; molasses, rum, packaged sugar and plain and flavoured syrups through new product innovations or embarking on new marketing strategies. However, it is hoped that the ACP sugar industry stakeholders will fully explore all the opportunities that science, technology and innovation offer by building national, regional and international strategic public/private sector partnerships so as to avoid a complete shutdown of factory operations and future reliance on imported sugar to support domestic consumption and sustain other sugar based industries.


 

Introduction

In preparation for the EU joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the EU proposed to open its doors to other developing countries beyond the ACP, to include the Least Developed Countries (LDC’s) for all commodities excluding arms. This proposition was met with resistance from the ACP countries with the resulting modifications that led to a phasing in of the quota and duty restrictions on the LDC’s over eight years. The ruling in October 2005 by the EU for a 36% cut in the price of sugar sold by ACP countries on the European market will adversely affect the sugar industries of these countries. ACP countries must now seek to implement measures to offset the projected fall in income. On the world scene, Brazil and Australia are leaders in sugarcane technology and have achieved great economies of scale by investing heavily in research and development which have borne fruit. There has been significant modernization of factories and mechanization of field operations. The sugar industry in Brazil is well-advanced with several product streams at some factories which also have the built-in capacity to scale up or down the production of different products as market demand dictates.

Within the ACP group, the Mauritian sugar industry is considered to be extremely successful and is one of the most efficient at the world level. In 2001 the Mauritian sugar industry started a very innovative restructuring exercise which called for factory centralization, rightsizing of labour force, increased generation of electricity from bagasse, improvement of value-added through co-products development and the establishment of a comprehensive Research and Development programme to take full advantage of biotechnology and cane biomass utilization (Autry, 2004). The industry’s share in the supply of electricity to the national grid would increase to over 70% in 2007. The industry has critically examined the options of special and organic sugars, ethanol and rum from cane juice and the production of sucro-chemicals for value addition. The Mauritian industry has also diversified away from sugar with land conversion schemes to real estate development and tourism.

In October 2005, the Prime Minister of Jamaica after initiating much debate on the restructuring of the sugar industry, announced that the focus would be on producing 200 000 tons of sugar, molasses for rum and ethanol to be used in the transportation sector; with ethanol being a new product for the Jamaican industry. In January 2006, the daily newspaper, ‘The Gleaner’ of Jamaica, reported that the Barbadian sugar industry announced plans to build a new cane factory and the emphasis would be on the production of molasses for the rum industry. The proposed facility is also expected to generate 30 megawatts of electricity, produce refined and specialty sugars and ethanol to be used as fuel. The impending price cut from the EU was long in coming and so the different ACP sugar industries are at various stages in modernizing their field and factory operations and formulating policy guidelines to meet the challenging times ahead. In the West Indies, various forums and conferences were convened, both nationally and regionally to discuss the way forward. Leading experts from Brazil, Australia, Guyana and Mauritius were asked to make presentations on new technologies and innovations that could assist in increasing efficiencies and productivity. Over the past four years there has been major re-tooling and modernizations of the two privately owned sugar factories in Jamaica and this has resulted in greater efficiencies and improved sugar quality. During the period, several consultants from Australia were hired to train local persons in the use of the new technologies commissioned.

Science, Technology and Innovation in field operations

Variety improvement and selection
Sugar production begins in the field and therefore varietal selection and improvement is an integral part of any sugar industry and much time and money have been invested in research to select and develop the right varieties for propagation that are high in sucrose concentration (Glaz, 2003). Biotechnology is a tool that can be used to reduce the time taken for new varieties to move from nurseries to the field and offers the potential to be fully explored in the ACP region. With the need to improve efficiency and competitiveness, emphasis needs to be placed on developing higher yielding, disease resistant varieties that are suitable for the given climatic and other environmental conditions and mechanical harvesting. With reduced earnings from sugar sales and increasing cost of energy, there exists the feasibility of cogeneration to generate surplus electricity for sale and as such consideration should be given to the growing of more high fibre varieties (Albert - Thenet, 2004) which would provide increased bagasse for the high pressure boilers which are at the heart of power generating systems. Dual purpose varieties have been developed which have a moderately high fibre and high sucrose content and these should provide juice for sugar, syrup, and ethanol production in addition to fibre to feed the boilers for cogeneration. National and regional cane breeding stations, such as exists in the Caribbean (e.g. the West Indies Cane Breeding station), should be encouraged to consider amalgamating their research and development programmes as a cost reduction strategy to support individual industries. This integrated approach is already being explored in Guyana (Davis 2004). Varieties that are too high in fibre may prove difficult to grind using existing milling technology and require that expensive modifications be made to the mills which would not give satisfactory returns on investment in the short or even mid term.

Land preparation
Minimum tillage has been used in Jamaica and elsewhere to reduce land preparation costs and to speed up the process of preparing the fields for planting. Research shows that this technology is beneficial to cane growth resulting in increased tonnages and is also quite cost-effective (Agra, 2004). It is applicable to large estates as well as small holdings and can be transferred to other sugar industries with comparable conditions. The implementation of GIS technology in land surveying, field layout and boundary mapping, irrigation and drainage can also be encouraged as these have proven to be cost-effective (White, 2005).

Agronomic practices
For increased productivity, agronomic practices irrigation, weed control and fertilizer application must be employed in a timely fashion. In Australia, double row planting is carried out resulting in increased field productivity and other countries can benefit from this practice. Soil and leaf analysis must be systematically carried out and fertilizer recommendations adhered to closely (Glaz, 2003). Cane yield surveys and return on investment studies should be routinely carried out.

Harvesting
Harvesting of sugarcane is either manual requiring significant labour input or mechanical, using harvesters. Whether manual or chopper-harvested methods are employed, the harvesting must be carried out in an efficient manner and standards adhered to that will result in fresh cane, free of extraneous matter, being transported to the factory. Full mechanization should be explored when: labour costs are high and labour output is low; there is a shortage of labour, or in cases when social dislocation would be minimal and economic and efficiency gains will be high. In addition, land topography and field lay-out must be able to support full mechanization. There are problems associated with the use of mechanical harvesters as this method usually results in increased extraneous matter, stools and excess tops being taken to the factory which can adversely affect processing (Rein, 2005). The extra material puts pressure on the rollers and increases the rate at which they wear and the tons cane per ton sugar conversion is also increased. In using mechanical harvesters, studies show that there are optimal settings for the base cutters and fan speeds for good clean canes to reach the factories (Larrahonndo, 2004, Ridge, 2003).

Environmental concerns
New environmental regulations in most cane growing countries will eventually lead to a ban on the burning of canes. This will result in added difficulties for cane cutters as they will be required to cut through trash that would have been burnt. The added trash blanket will slow the re-growth of the canes and can prevent fertilizers from getting to the root of plants. Studies are being done to explore options for dealing with this potential problem. The trash has calorific value and can be burnt at the boilers if an economical way can be found to collect, compact, and transport it to the factory (Meyer, 2005, Norris, 2004).

Science, Technology and Innovation in Factory operations

Cane payment
The practice of paying for canes by the tonnage has been replaced by payment for canes using quality parameters such as pol and brix (sucrose content) and this has resulted in laboratories being set up to sample cane on arrival at the factories. This emphasis on payment based on quality parameters has resulted in better quality canes reaching the factory. For decades, the toxic chemical lead subacetate was used to clarify juice and sugar solutions for pol analysis which provides an indication of sucrose content (Meade, 1993). With new environment regulations, it has become necessary to find non-toxic substitutes. ABC (Clarke, 1990) and Octapol are proprietary reagents which have been introduced as replacement chemicals with Octapol predominating as its shelf-life was longer than that for ABC. The sugar industries of the Caribbean have adopted the use of Octapol (Wilson, 2001, 2003). Advancements in analytical techniques for polarimetric measurements have seen the use of NIR technology being employed. In 2004 South Africa started using NIR polarimetry for grower payment (Schoones, 2004). The Jamaican industry has concluded studies on this methodology but is yet to implement it because of the additional cost of instrumentation (Wilson, 2005). Some industries, for example those in Australia, Florida, and Brazil are now using NIR spectroscopy for pol analysis (Staunton, 2004; Madsen 2003).

Cane storage
Ideally there should be little or no storage of canes at the factory since this can result in staling. Consequently, the sugar produced from these canes that are high in dextrans and other degradation products of sucrose attract heavy penalties from the refineries. The use of dextranases and amylases during processing is recommended to reduce dextran and starch concentrations and is routine in some developed countries. Canes, once they arrive at the factory, should be transferred to the milling stations without storing and so some industries for example those in USA, no longer use traditional cane yards. In Jamaica, this practice has been introduced at one factory and at the others stringent measures have been implemented to ensure that canes brought in are milled first to reduce or totally eliminate staling at the factory.

Cane preparation
Some modern factories employ diffusion technology for the extraction of sugar from the canes but this is very expensive to introduce at older, less efficient mills. At most mills extraction of the juice is done by crushing the canes and passing through a series of roll mills. Mill sanitation is critical in preventing and/or reducing bacterial growth and the use of chemicals such as biocides is routine at all sugar factories (Kulkarni, 2004). Bacterial growth is evidenced by increase in viscosity of the juice with resulting massecuites (mixture of molasses and sugar) which are difficult to process and give rise to low boiling house efficiencies

The SRI clarifiers, which are standard in any new factory, were developed in Australia, are very efficient and cause a reduction in residence times of the juice. This results in a decrease in processing time and a faster throughput in the factory. The change from continuous to batch centrifugals has resulted in improved sugar quality. The installation of sugar driers further reduces moisture content and increases sugar pol for which a premium can be earned.

Effluent
The control and monitoring of effluents leaving the sugar factory is crucial in order to meet new and existing environmental regulations (Davis, 2004). Air as well as wastewater quality now need to be monitored periodically to ensure that environmental standards are observed.

New Products

Over the last three decades there has been a proliferation of non-sucrose sweeteners and other sugars on the market which has reduced dependence on cane sugar. However, new markets have emerged that the sugar industry can access (Cooper, 2002; Godshall, 2004). The high price for fossil fuel and the pressure put on Governments by environmentalists has resulted in more countries introducing regulations for the addition of ethanol to gasoline for the transportation industry. Therefore the production of ethanol can provide a well needed lifeline to the sugar industry. Researchers in Australia have found a way of increasing the amount of ethanol produced from one molecule of glucose by 50% by the ZeaChem process (Edye, 2004). When commercialized this would offer great returns on investments. Much research is being done to convert the bagasse to ethanol and other chemicals which have greater market value.

The production of speciality sugars, packaged sugars in various sizes, colours and shapes, syrups both plain and flavoured, is being done by industries in the USA and South Africa and should be explored by ACP sugar industries as a way of developing additional income streams. The growing of organic canes should be explored by small holdings as this offers good returns and can be more profitable for small farms. Guyana is presently marketing organic sugar. Electricity generation through cogeneration by some industries might be profitable and should be explored if large modern facilities are being built.

However, ACP scientists, technologists, engineers and private entrepreneurs need to also be visionary in their thinking with respect to identifying new opportunities for the sugar industry outside of the traditional uses and embarking on strategic research across the commodity chain to improve competitiveness.

Conclusions

The sugar industries of ACP countries need to immediately begin restructuring or accelerate the process as a response to events on the global market. These are very challenging times and creativity and innovation are required in the restructuring and modernizing of the different industries. A total integration of crop management systems should be embarked on one that includes aspects of crop rotations. GIS modelling, optimization of fertilizer programmes, a combining of traditional and molecular genetics in variety selection, pathology, entomology and composting of factory wastes for recycling of nutrients for a sustainable sugarcane industry (Glaz, 2003). On the factory side, there is the need for modernizing the existing automation systems or implementation if absent (Langhans, 2003; Kochergin, 2002), to offer good process control (Rozsa, 2003) and improved plant efficiencies and to include the possibility of producing direct consumption sugar (plantation white) (Steindl, 2005). This new sugar industry will need workers who are well trained and capable of developing and implementing new innovations and designing and applying new technologies. There will be new standards set in management, quality, environmental and labour issues to adhere to which will require a new outlook and way of thinking for a sustained change. Funding needs to be made available to support innovative research and development and re-training. Differentiated programmes and initiatives that will address the needs of all stakeholders for the new sugar industries envisioned in the future should be put in place as a matter of priority.

There are wonderful opportunities available that can be explored (Kochergin, 2002). The sugarcane is the most efficient plant at converting carbon dioxide to sugars and this provides renewable biomass. In an age where there is so much concern about environmental degradation due to the large use of fossil fuel, the sugar industries need to position themselves as viable alternatives and renewable sources of energy. The concept of bio-refineries (Kendalll Pye, 2004) can be very readily applied to sugarcane and can result in the production of many bio-based products suitable for use in foods, pharmaceuticals, textile and many other industrial applications.


May 2006

Maureen R. Wilson, Sugar Industry Research Institute, Mandeville, Manchester, Jamaica WI

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