Recent spurt in sugar prices in the international market has raised alarms and in India the prices have registered more than 100% rise in one year making it a serious political issue. Globally the price is predicted to jump to more than 45 US cents per kg (more than Rs 20). Now is the time to think of a long-term policy regarding country’s over dependence on sugarcane, writes V H Potty.
Sugar from cane or beets forms an important component of modern diets. While sugarcane cultivation in Brazil, India and other countries constitute a major portion of world production, sugar beets dominate in the US and Europe. Recent spurt in sugar prices in the international market has raised alarms and in India the prices have registered more than 100% rise in one year making it a serious political issue. Globally the price is predicted to jump to more than 45 US cents per kg (more than Rs 20). In man’s quest for getting 2000-2500 kc of energy per day, sugar is an important source, though it is being implicated lately in causing serious health disorders. The fructose+glucose combination (HFCS) derived from corn is used extensively in processed foods and beverages and the burgeoning obese population is attributed to uncontrolled consumption of HFCS. Against such a scenario, the role of sugar needs to be defined before any long-term policy option is considered for increasing or decreasing world production.
Some experts suggest that daily sugar intake must be restricted to no more than 44 gm where as the actual per capita consumption works out to more than 65 gm. It is unlikely that this level of consumption will go down significantly in spite of all dire warnings about the dangers posed by high consumption of sugar. The annual growth in consumption averages around 2% while production and stocks are declining. Against a global demand of 167 million tons (mt), actual production in 2009-10 is not anticipated to be more than 160 mt. In India the production registered a catastrophic decline of almost 11 mt in 2008-09 from the peak of 26.3 mt in 2007-08. According to current projections the sugar output may recover partly during 2009-10 to reach about 22 mt. The area under sugarcane cultivation fluctuates between 10.5 and 13 million hectares (mha).
Sugar situation in India is complicated by factors like inconsistent government policies, diversion of cane to jaggery production, direct consumption, inconsistent export policy, uncertainties regarding minimum support price guaranteed to growers and huge payment arrears to growers by the mills. The per capita availability fell from about 60 gm in 2007-08 to less than 40 gm a day in 2008-09 that seems to have led to the current price escalation. Even if the production regains the momentum eventually, now is the time to think of a long-term policy regarding country’s over dependence on sugarcane. With yields like 80 tons per hectare, sugarcane at best can deliver only about 8-9 tons of sugar whereas Tapioca containing 25-30% sugar equivalent starch and a yield as high as 80 tons/ha can provide same sugar from less than half of the current acreage under sugarcane with considerably lesser water requirement. The technology for fructose + glucose products equivalent to sucrose in sweetness is well established and India must go for this system increasingly at least to meet the sugar needs of the food industry.
Another possibility is increasing the sweetness quotient of cane sugar by admixing with safe sweeteners like Stevia glycosides, Sucralose and /or Neotame and to extend the supply. Sucralose a unique modified sucrose molecule is made by introducing 3 chlorine atoms in place of 3 hydroxyl groups in the disaccharide structure of sucrose which results in boosting its sweetness 600 times. Technical feasibility of processing sugarcane juice directly for making sucralose needs to be explored and blends of sucrose and sucralose can be cleared for manufacture and consumption. Such a route offers the possibility of introducing different versions of sugar with varying sweetness and differential prices. Safety considerations are important but sucralose has been cleared for use by humans in more than 80 countries with approval from FAO, WHO and other global agencies. More than 4500 food products are manufactured today containing sucralose. The intake limit of 15 mg per kg weight per day offers very high safety margin as individual consumption beyond 200 mg per day (equivalent to less than 3 mg/kg body weight) is beyond the realm of possibility.
There will be stiff opposition to such a strategy from the sugar lobby and some consumer activists. But in the long-term interests of the country such policy options must be considered after making sure that consumer safety is not compromised in any way.