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
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
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
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
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
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.