Agri Business

Increasing sugarcane production for ethanol detrimental for India: Study

TV Jayan New Delhi | Updated on August 06, 2020

Will require enormous water and land, result in greater consumption of ‘empty-calorie’ sugar

If India were to depend exclusively on sugarcane molasses for producing ethanol to meet its 2030 goal of 20 per cent blending, it may need to produce an additional 1,320 million tonnes (mt) of sugarcane, requiring 348 billion cubic metres of water and 19 million hectares of land, according to a study.

If molasses are used to meet this target – requiring a production of 20 billion litres (bl) of bioethanol – it would require additional water and land resources, nearly four times more than the current, and would result in production of extra sugar of 161 mt, said the study published recently by a team of researchers from Stanford University in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

This would be slightly less than the current global production. Apart from encouraging more consumption of ‘empty-calorie’ sugar through public distribution system, this would lead to plummeting of global sugar prices, requiring the government to shell out more to subsidise Indian sugar, said the Stanford researchers, which included graduate student Ju Young Lee, first author of the study.

In 2018-19, India produced 2.4 bl of ethanol and 93 per cent came from B and C molasses.

Maharashtra case study

The current study, the first comprehensive analysis of Indian sugar industry and its impact on water, food and energy resources through the lens of its political economy, used sugarcane cultivation and sugar production in Maharashtra — the second highest sugar producing State — as a case study.

The study found that in 2010-11, sugarcane occupied only 4 per cent of Maharashtra's total cropped areas but used 61 per cent of its irrigation water. Irrigation available for other nutritious food crops, on the other hand, remained lower than national averages. The study also found that sugarcane irrigation resulted in 50 per cent reduction in river flow in the Upper Bhima Basin, the area that the scientists studied.

Despite the Maharashtra Water and Irrigation Commission recommending banning of sugarcane cultivation in areas that received less than 1000 mm rainfall per year nearly two decades ago, even today 82 per cent of sugarcane cultivation occurs in regions with low-rainfall, they said.

Political nexus

Exploring the nexus between politicians, sugar mills and big sugarcane farmers, the study said sugarcane cultivation in India has expanded in part because of policies that incentivise production, including a minimum price, guaranteed sales of sugarcane and public distribution of sugar. Another serious problem cited by the scientists is that sugarcane, which is an empty-calorie crop, reduces the amount of resources available for micronutrient-rich foods in the country.

A more viable option for the government, the scientists said, would be to meet E20 without increasing sugarcane supply. The current level of sugarcane production is sufficient to supply the amount of ethanol needed to meet E20 by 2030 if ethanol comes entirely from sugarcane juice, as envisaged by the new national biofuels policy. This would ensure that water resource depletion and competition for water and land resources for nutritious crops would at least not worsen further, they argued.

Published on August 06, 2020

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