The worth of the sugar cane
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Monday February 17, 2014

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The worth of the sugar cane

Both here in Corozal and Orange Walk, the main topic of discussion ending the old year 2013 and beginning the New Year 2014 continues to be the predominant unresolved issues overshadowing the future of the sugar cane crop. Here is a brief history of what exactly is sugar cane for those that would like to know.

Sugarcane, or Sugar cane, is any of six to 37 species (depending on which taxonomic system is used) of tall perennial true grasses of the genus Saccharum, tribe Andropogoneae, native to the warm temperate to tropical regions of South Asia. They have stout jointed fibrous stalks that are rich in sugar, and measure two to six metres (6 to 19 feet) tall. All sugar cane species interbreed and the major commercial cultivars are complex hybrids.

Sugarcane belongs to the grass family (Poaceae), an economically important seed plant family that includes maize, wheat, rice, and sorghum and many forage crops. The main product of sugarcane is sucrose, which accumulates in the stalk internodes. Sucrose, extracted and purified in specialized mill factories, is used as raw material in human food industries or is fermented to produce ethanol. Ethanol is produced by Belize Sugar Industries/American Sugar Refining to generate electricity which is then sold to Belize Electricity Limited for a profit.

Sugarcane is the world's largest crop. In 2010, the Food Agriculture Organization estimates sugar cane was cultivated on about 23.8 million hectares, in more than 90 countries, with a worldwide harvest of 1.69 billion tons. Brazil was the largest producer of sugar cane in the world. The next five major producers, in decreasing amounts of production, were India, China, Thailand, Pakistan and Mexico.

The world demand for sugar is the primary driver of sugarcane agriculture. Cane accounts for 80% of sugar produced; most of the rest is made from sugar beets. Sugarcane predominantly grows in the tropical and subtropical regions, and sugar beet predominantly grows in colder temperate regions of the world. Other than sugar, products derived from sugarcane include falernum, molasses, rum, traditional spirits, bagasse and ethanol. In some regions, people use sugarcane reeds to make pens, mats, screens, and thatch. The young unexpanded inflorescence of tebu telor is eaten raw, steamed or toasted, and prepared in various ways in certain island communities of Indonesia.

In India, between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, the Persians, followed by the Greeks, discovered the famous "reeds that produce honey without bees". They adopted and then spread sugar and sugarcane agriculture. A few merchants began to trade in sugar—a luxury and an expensive spice until the 18th century. Before the 18th century, cultivation of sugar cane was largely confined to India. Sugarcane plantations, like cotton farms, were a major driver of large human migrations in the 19th and early 20th century, influencing the ethnic mix, political conflicts and cultural evolution of various Caribbean, South American, Indian Ocean and Pacific island nations.

Sugarcane is a tropical, perennial grass that forms lateral shoots at the base to produce multiple stems, typically three to four metres high and about five cm in diameter. The stems grow into cane stalk, which when mature constitutes approximately 75% of the entire plant. A mature stalk is typically composed of 11–16% fiber, 12–16% soluble sugars, 2–3% non-sugars, and 63–73% water. A sugarcane crop is sensitive to the climate, soil type, irrigation, fertilizers, insects, disease control, varieties, and the harvest period. The average yield of cane stalk is 60–70 tonnes per hectare per year. However, this figure can vary between 30 and 180 tonnes per hectare depending on knowledge and crop management approach used in sugarcane cultivation. Sugarcane is a cash crop, but it is also used as livestock fodder.

In Belize, the sugar cane industry is a vital part of our economic structure and an important foreign exchange earner. Power to the cane farmers of the north.

Photograph and story by the Corozal Daily

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