Syngenta takes sugar beet back to the tropics

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Sugar, Syngenta

Syngenta has developed a variety of sugar beet for cultivation in
tropical climates that is expected to boost output and farmer
income, and has initiated two products to develop its use for food
and biofuel in India.

Today sugar beet is usually grown in northern climates, whereas sugar cane is better suited to tropical countries like India. Indeed India's sugar cane industry is second in size only to Brazil's, with production of 420.1m metric tonnes in 2005 according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation. But the agribusiness recognized a need to up sugar production in the face of new demand driven by the food versus fuel debate, growing population and changing eating habits. Its new variety is said to take half as long to grow as sugar cane (five to six months compared to 12 to 14), so farmers can grow two crops in the time it would normally take to grow one and increase their income accordingly. It is also suitable for saline and poor quality soil that cannot be used for other agricultural purposes. This means that sugar output can be expanded without the need to take over more agricultural land. The beet variety also uses 30 to 50 per cent less water than sugar cane - an important factor in parts of the world where the resource is in short supply. A spokesperson for Syngenta described it as "the only beet that can be found next to a sugar cane field".​ In fact, sugar beet originally came from warmer climates, after Napoleon took it north and varieties became adapted to conditions there. Over the last 200 years it has disappeared from the southern hemisphere. However the spokesperson said that this historical aspect was not a part of Syngenta's development activities. Rather than returning to a historical variety, the firm developed a new one with the precise characteristics it required by tapping its large, proprietary portfolio of beet varieties and conducting a painstaking breeding process over a 12 year period. Moreover, he stressed that tropical beet is not proposed as an alternative to sugar cane cultivation, but a complementary product. Given the demands of growing population and welfare, shifting diet patterns and the need for alternative energy, there is a need to increase sugar output in an environmentally-friendly way and in a way that supports farmers, he said. The first harvest has already been brought in, although this was not on a commercial scale, said the spokesperson. Beet earmarked for food use was grown on some 120 acres of land, and this is to be processed at a pilot plant commissioned the Samarth Cooperative Sugar Mill at Ambad, near Jalna, Maharashtra, and set up in cooperation with the Vasantdada Sugar Institute (VSI), an organization dedicated to the development of the sugar industry. Syngenta is continuing to develop ways for processors to integrate beet processing into their existing cane processes. A large part of the processing is the same as for sugar cane - that is, in both cases the syrup must be squeezed from both beet and came. As for the new market of biofuels, Syngenta is working with a company called Harneshwar Agro Products, in which some 12,000 farmers are shareholders, which has built a bio-ethanol production plant for the processing of Syngenta's tropical beet. He said that there is a possibility of a parallel farmer-owned company for beet destined for the food industry, but the sugar mill system is already much more developed and mature whereas biofuel is a new area. "It is less developed, so we can playa role in such projects​," he said. Most of the testing has taken place in India, and this is the first country that will see the benefit of commercialization. According to VSI, the sugar is India's second largest industry (after textiles), with an annual turnover of around Rs 30000. There are more than 550 sugar factories in India, and the industry provides employment for around 0.4m people. India's minister for food and agriculture Hon Mr Sharah Pawar said: "The Indian government is highly interested in Syngenta's technological capabilities to support the growth of India's agricultural sector… I am sure the Indian sugar industry will happily work together with Syngenta to further optimize the crop and introduce it to growers across the country."​ Syngenta also plans to make the variety available in other tropical countries, and some tests have been conducted in places like Sudan and Central and South America to ensure it is suitable for conditions there too. Syngenta, which claims a top three position in the commercial seeds market, reported annual sales of approximately US$9.1bn in 2006.

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