Sugar is the second most important cash crop in Pakistan

Nov 18 - 24, 2002



Presently lot of discussions is taking place among concerned circles regarding the cultivation of sugar beet instead of sugarcane in Sindh in order to overcome shortage of irrigation water. This article analysis important aspect of this novel idea, before bringing it to a logical end.

The federal minister of agriculture has stated in reports appearing in the press that in view of the water problem, high water-requiring crop of sugarcane may be replaced with lower water-requiring crop sugar beet.

The sugar experts have warned the government to desist from taking any hasty decision of shifting cultivation of sugarcane to sugar beet in Sindh, as this decision may prove counter-productive both for the industry and as well as for the growers. They have advised the government to consider pros and cons before deciding to go for mass scale beet plantation.

Sugar is the second most important cash crop in Pakistan after cotton. Self-sufficiency in sugar is a goal, but one that to date has proven illusive. Sugar consumption in Pakistan is growing with the expanding population. In the last 10 years consumption grew at an average of over 4 per cent a year.

Per caput sugar consumption in Pakistan, at about 22 kilograms a year, is slightly above the world average and compares to India's per caput use of 15 kilograms. If the consumption of non-centrifugal sugar such as gur were added, apparent consumption would be much higher.

Pakistan grows about 1 million hectares of sugarcane, more than all other cane producing countries except Brazil, China, Cuba, India and Thailand. The Punjab accounts for 60 to 65 per cent of the area under sugarcane. Other producing areas include the Sindh, which accounts for 25 to 30 per cent of sugarcane land, the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) about 10 per cent, and Balochistan accounts for less than 1 per cent. However average cane-yield of Sindh was 37 per cent higher than that of Punjab and 26 per cent higher than that of NWFP during last decade.

Pakistan's sugarcane yield averages about 46 tonnes per hectare, well below the world average of above 60 tonnes, and below neighbouring India's yield of 65 to 70 tonnes. It is expected to decrease further as sugarcane area has further declined to 0.93 million hectare in 2000-1, mostly because cane-growers shifted to other crops due to non timely payments of their dues by the mill-owners on account of one excuse or the other and partly due to the drought during the last two years.

The number of sugar mills in Pakistan has increased from 3 in 1947 to 76 in 1999-2000. The sugar milling capacity is 5 million tonnes of sugar, but the sector is operating at only about 60 per cent. Difficulty in acquiring sufficient cane due to competition with gur is the major factor contributing to the underutilization. Given the sometimes-overriding efforts of mills to acquire cane, security of supply for any one mill is low. The other associated problem is the low extraction rate mostly due to deterioration in cane quality.

Irrespective of the extraction of the sugar either from cane or beet, it is necessary that Pakistan opts a politics-free sugar policy to achieve not only a long awaited sustainable self-sufficiency in sugar but for having some exportable surplus as well on permanent basis. We do have all physical ingredients for achieving this goal, only thing, which is lacking is a firm will.

Pakistan spent around Rs. 14 billion on import of sugar during last two years as the country faced a decline in sugar production from 55.7 million ton during 1998-99 to 43.6 million ton in 2000-2001. Therefore any forced decision of shifting cane cultivation to beet cultivation at this juncture could be a disaster for the national sugar industry.

Factually, it should be ecology of the region that needs to dictate the cropping pattern of that particular locality. It must not be just flimsy experiments on whose basis we force a shift in the decades old prevailing cropping pattern of the region. Even if the ecology of an area favours the production of an industrial crop such as sugar beet, it is not economically viable to grow it on mass scale in the absence of required industrial support.

We have before us a glaring example of failure palm oil crop cultivation in Sindh for want of industrial backup support for mass consumption. Both federal and provincial governments spent billions of rupees for promoting oil palm in coastal areas of Sindh but the plan didn't bear any fruit as the industry was not geared up to consume the crop. Our farmers though illiterate, but are not so stupid to shift the cane cultivation with beet on the basis of couple of government claimed successful trails.

There are only four sugar mills in NWFP designed to process beet in Pakistan. The processing of beet sugar requires different equipments for extraction and processing. Therefore sugar mills especially in Sindh, are reluctant to extend co-operation in any form to the government plans to introduce cultivation of sugar beet as they do not have required beet processing facilities with them.

In order to gear-up the existing cane sugar mills of Sindh for additional beet sugar processing facilities, it would require an investment of around Rs. 350 million per mill mainly in foreign exchange. This is quite a heavy investment, which the mill owners are not willing to spend as introduction of sugar-beet cultivation on a commercial scale, after discontinuing the cultivation of sugarcane is not very certain and the economic and technical viability of the project is also a big question mark.

It will be worthwhile to note that at present NWFP occupies 98 per cent of the national sugar-beet area and contributes 99 per cent of the total sugar-beet production in the country.

In early 1960s studies declared sugar beet cultivation in NWFP very promising for sugar production but it didn't prove to be as was claimed. The past history and performance of 40 years of sugar beet cultivation and its processing in NWFP shows an erratic performance i.e. production fluctuation between 5,000 to 40,000 tonnes per annum and very low capacity factory operation due to non-availability of sugar beet. This dismal history of beet production in most suitable area of the country is a discouraging factor for this plan.

No doubt that cumulative water requirement of sugar beet is almost half but there is still a need to explore watering of both crops with reference to permanent wilting point of respective crops. Although beet needs eight watering during its four months cultivation period against cane that needs only four during its entire one years cultivation time but the later is reported to survive even after two watering, whereas the former cannot sustain in case of water shortage.

Moreover this proposed shifting from sugarcane to beet would entail scrapping of all the research efforts and results obtained during last 50 years for the development of high yielding, pest resistant and higher sucrose content sugarcane varieties. Ultimately this shifting would windup the National Sugarcane Research Institute (Thatta) thereby rendering valuable services of sugar scientists futile.

The most important factor which needs to be considered is that sugar beet being a Rabi crop will compete for water with wheat the major Rabi crop when the water supply is much lower than that of Kharif season in the country. As our farmers already get a fixed water allocation during both seasons, therefore if the farmers compelled to grow sugar beet then they will have to offset wheat cultivation, which will not be an economical option both for farmers and the country.

All these factors would have to be given due thought by the government before an enforcement of a change in cropping pattern is resorted to, as any forced shifting as is being planned now, will bring negative impacts for the national sugar industry.