Sugarcane Can Be Grown Sustainably; That May Be The Only Way In A Few Years


Growing sugarcane in a minimally invasive way is not just an environmental virtue, it has social and economic benefits as well. Disturbing the soil as little as possible, minimising water use and being frugal with fertilisers and crop protection chemicals reduces the cost of cultivation and raises farmers income without causing too much harm to the environment.

DCM Shriram, which has four sugar mills in central Uttar Pradesh, advises its cane suppliers to follow a package of practices. This includes trench planting of single or paired buds about one foot away from each other in rows that are four feet apart. This gives the plants and their offshoots known as tillers enough access to sunlight and room to grow tall and thick.

In the space between the rows, short-duration winter crops that earn additional income when the cane is in the early stages, like peas, potatoes, lentil (masoor), mustard, garlic and onion, are planted.

When the cane clumps are covered with soil to shore up their bases and prevent them from tilting, furrows form. Furrow irrigation reduces water use compared to flood irrigation. Cane trash cover on soil, called mulching, checks evaporation loss, and on decomposition, enriches the soil with organic matter and increases its water retention capacity. Laser levelling the field for even flow of water and uniform growth of cane, also helps. Applying a fungi called Trichoderma that feeds on another fungi that causes red rot disease is a natural way of controlling the pathogen. Infusing the field with phosphorus solubilising bacteria which strengthens plant immunity helps reduce the use of protective chemicals.

When the company entered the sugar business in 1997 with a mill at Ajbapur in Lakhimpur Kheri district, farmers regarded the second crop of sugarcane emerging from the vegetative growth of cut or coppiced cane as a gift of nature on which they bestowed little care. But the cultivation cost of ratoon cane is less than that of planted cane. It requires little disturbance of the soil and results in lower tractor emissions. Raja Srivatavata, who looks after the company’s cane operations says about 50 percent of arrivals at the four mills is ratoon cane.

Through these measures, DCM Shriram says its farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri and Hardoi, who between them had 2.35 lakh hectares under cane last year avoided the use of 735 billion litres of water over six years between 2016-17 and 2020-21. The Indian Institute of Sugarcane Research, Lucknow, has devised a methodology for calculating the savings from each practice. It also certifies the savings.

Some of the water saving practices can result in the release of earth-warming gases. When trash decomposes methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, is released. But trash was burnt earlier releasing soot and smoke into the air and causing respiratory ailments. So, a holistic environmental assessment will have to be done.

The emphasis of sustainable cultivation began with the International Finance Corporation, a World Bank affiliate, and a DCM Shriram investor, initiating the Meetha Sona project in 2009 as part of its mandate to raise rural incomes and empower women.

Sugar mills operate for half a year. They are closed during the rest of the period. To be profitable, they should run for at least 120 to 140 days a year. This depends on cane availability. It’s in the interest of the mill to raise yield per acre so farmers continue to grow cane and expand the area under it, rather than migrate to other paying crops.

When the project began, the company’s farmers-suppliers produced 450 quintals of cane per hectare [q/ha] on average, against UP’s average of 580 q/ha and the national average of 650 q/ha.

During a visit in October, this correspondent met Anurag Shukla, 46, a farmer of Udranpur village in Hardoi’s Shahabad tehsil. He harvested cane on five bighas [six bighas is an acre and a hectare is 2.4 acres] at the rate of 2,468 q/ha on a plot for a state-level competition. District officials, he says, certified the yield and produces photographs in evidence. From the rest of his farm, he says he harvested 962 q/ha.

There are quite a few farmers like Shukla though overall yield increases during the past 25 years across the company’s cane area has been just four percent.

Timely payment of cane prices fixed by the government, correct weighment, the introduction of early-maturing high-yielding varieties with high sugar content like Co 0238, and handholding by the company’s teams of agronomists and their associates have helped the company expand its cane area from about 17,000 hectares in 1997-98 to 1.64 lakh hectares. Sugar capacity expansion and cane supply have chased each other in a virtuous loop. By end of next year, the company will have the capacity to crush 41,000 tonnes of cane per day from 2,500 tonnes 25 years ago. Cane crushed per season has increased 25 times in as many years. Last year about 1,900 crore was paid for cane purchased. This is more than trickle down. It releases a stream of revenue directly into the bank accounts of farmers within say, a 50 km radius. The impact over the years on rural poverty is visible.

Drip irrigation, which is a very efficient way of delivering water and (soluble) fertilisers to sugarcane has not taken off in this area because there is enough ground water. Shatadru Chattopadhayay, Managing Director of Solidaridad Asia, a Dutch NGO, and an implementation partner in Meetha Sona, says he is keen on drip irrigation to make the farmers future ready.

There is a misconception that sugarcane needs plenty of water. It needs more water than other crops, but fields don’t need to be soaked. In Maharashtra’s Sangli district, Sanjeev Mane grows cane entirely on drip irrigation. He says he harvested 131 tonnes per acre from five acres of sugarcane, last year. On an experimental plot, he says, his yield was 148 tonnes per acre.

Mane leads what is known as the 150-tonne club. It’s began as a 100-tonne club in 1999. The aim of this group of farmers is to achieve yields of 150 tonnes per acre. Mane says he overshot the target in 2017-18 when he harvested 161 tonnes per acre on an experimental plot (of 0.75 acres). Mane says he had 31,000 members in his WhatsApp group, of whom 27,000 are active. They follow his agronomic advice diligently every day to maximise sugarcane yields.

DCM Shriram’s environmental initiatives have been good for its business. For three of its units, it has got Bonsucro certification which is an international standard for sustainable sugarcane farming practices. Srivastava says this has endeared it to institutional sugar buyers like Coca-Cola and Unilever. Farmers will have to practice sustainability, says Chattopadhayay, for sugar produced from their cane to gain access in future to European and other developed markets, where emissions or water use above a threshold limit during cultivation could result in denial of access or stiff levies.


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