On a hot afternoon (or morning, or evening — it’s always hot here in southern Thailand), there is nothing more satisfying than drinking an ice cold bottle of freshly-pressed sugarcane juice from a roadside stall. As I am not a big fan of ice coffee or tea, this is my usual go-to drink whenever I’m in the market or just out-and-about. In Phuket, at least, it seems a bit more common than those other stalwarts of Thai juice vendors — watermelon, pineapple and even mango. There are still large fields of sugarcane to be found throughout the northern part of the island.
Sugarcane are several species of tall perennial true grasses of the genus Saccharum, tribe Andropogoneae, native to the warm temperate to tropical regions of South Asia and Melanesia, and used for sugar production. It has stout, jointed, fibrous stalks that are rich in the sugar sucrose, which accumulates in the stalk internodes. The plant is two to six meters (six to twenty feet) tall. All sugar cane species interbreed and the major commercial cultivars are complex hybrids. Sugarcane belongs to the grass family Poaceae, an economically important seed plant family that includes maize, wheat, rice, and sorghum, and many forage crops.
Sucrose, extracted and purified in specialized mill factories, is used as raw material in the food industry or is fermented to produce ethanol. Ethanol is produced on a large scale by the Brazilian sugarcane industry. Sugarcane is the world’s largest crop by production quantity. In 2012, The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates it was cultivated on about 26×106 hectares (6.4×107 acres), in more than 90 countries, with a worldwide harvest of 1.83×109 tonnes (1.80×109 long tons; 2.02×109 short tons). Brazil was the largest producer of sugar cane in the world. The next five major producers, in decreasing amounts of production, were India, China, Thailand, Pakistan, and Mexico.
The global demand for sugar is the primary driver of sugarcane agriculture. Cane accounts for 80% of sugar produced; most of the rest is made from sugar beets. Sugarcane predominantly grows in the tropical and subtropical regions (sugar beets grow in colder temperate regions). Other than sugar, products derived from sugarcane include falernum, molasses, rum, cachaça (a traditional spirit from Brazil), bagasse, and ethanol. In some regions, people use sugarcane reeds to make pens, mats, screens, and thatch. The young, unexpanded inflorescence of tebu telor is eaten raw, steamed, or toasted, and prepared in various ways in certain island communities of Indonesia.
The Persians, followed by the Greeks, encountered the famous “reeds that produce honey without bees” in India between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. They adopted and then spread sugarcane agriculture. Merchants began to trade in sugar from India, which was considered a luxury and an expensive spice. In the 18th century AD, sugarcane plantations began in Caribbean, South American, Indian Ocean and Pacific island nations and the need for laborers became a major driver of large human migrations, including slave labor and indentured servants.
Sugarcane is a tropical, perennial grass that forms lateral shoots at the base to produce multiple stems, typically 10 to 13 feet (three to four meters) high and about 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter. The stems grow into cane stalk, which when mature constitutes around 75% of the entire plant. A mature stalk is typically composed of 11–16% fiber, 12–16% soluble sugars, 2–3% nonsugars, and 63–73% water. A sugarcane crop is sensitive to the climate, soil type, irrigation, fertilizers, insects, disease control, varieties, and the harvest period. The average yield of cane stalk is 24-28 long ton per acre (27-31 short ton/acre or 60–70 tonnes per hectare) per year. However, this figure can vary between 30 and 180 tonnes per hectare depending on knowledge and crop management approach used in sugarcane cultivation. Sugarcane is a cash crop, but it is also used as livestock fodder.
Sugarcane is indigenous to tropical South and Southeast Asia. Different species likely originated in different locations, with Saccharum barberi originating in India and S. edule and S. officinarum in New Guinea. The earliest known production of crystalline sugar began in northern India. The exact date of the first cane sugar production is unclear. The earliest evidence of sugar production comes from ancient Sanskrit and Pali texts.
Around the 8th century, Muslim and Arab traders introduced sugar from South Asia to the other parts of the Abbasid Caliphate in the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Egypt, North Africa, and Andalusia. By the 10th century, sources state that every village in Mesopotamia grew sugarcane. It was among the early crops brought to the Americas by the Spanish, mainly Andalusians, from their fields in the Canary Islands, and the Portuguese from their fields in the Madeira Islands.
Christopher Columbus first brought sugarcane to the Caribbean during his second voyage to the Americas; initially to the island of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). In colonial times, sugar formed one side of the triangle trade of New World raw materials, along with European manufactured goods, and African slaves. Sugar (often in the form of molasses) was shipped from the Caribbean to Europe or New England, where it was used to make rum. The profits from the sale of sugar were then used to purchase manufactured goods, which were then shipped to West Africa, where they were bartered for slaves. The slaves were then brought back to the Caribbean to be sold to sugar planters. The profits from the sale of the slaves were then used to buy more sugar, which was shipped to Europe.
France found its sugarcane islands so valuable that it effectively traded its portion of Canada, famously dubbed “a few acres of snow”, to Britain for their return of Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia at the end of the Seven Years’ War. The Dutch similarly kept Suriname, a sugar colony in South America, instead of seeking the return of the New Netherlands (New York).
Boiling houses in the 17th through 19th centuries converted sugarcane juice into raw sugar. These houses were attached to sugar plantations in the Western colonies. Slaves often ran the boiling process under very poor conditions. Rectangular boxes of brick or stone served as furnaces, with an opening at the bottom to stoke the fire and remove ashes. At the top of each furnace were up to seven copper kettles or boilers, each one smaller and hotter than the previous one. The cane juice began in the largest kettle. The juice was then heated and lime added to remove impurities. The juice was skimmed and then channeled to successively smaller kettles. The last kettle, the “teache”, was where the cane juice became syrup. The next step was a cooling trough, where the sugar crystals hardened around a sticky core of molasses. This raw sugar was then shoveled from the cooling trough into hogsheads (wooden barrels), and from there into the curing house.
In the British Empire, slaves were liberated after 1833 and many would no longer work on sugarcane plantations when they had a choice. British owners of sugarcane plantations therefore needed new workers, and they found cheap labor in China, Portugal and India. The people were subject to indenture, a long-established form of contract which bound them to forced labor for a fixed term; apart from the fixed term of servitude, this resembled slavery. The first ships carrying indentured laborers from India left in 1836. The migrations to serve sugarcane plantations led to a significant number of ethnic Indians, southeast Asians and Chinese settling in various parts of the world. In some islands and countries, the South Asian migrants now constitute between 10 and 50 percent of the population. Sugarcane plantations and Asian ethnic groups continue to thrive in countries such as Fiji, Natal, Burma, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, British Guiana, Jamaica, Trinidad, Martinique, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, St. Croix, Suriname, Nevis, and Mauritius.
The then British colony of Queensland, now a state of Australia, coerced (or “blackbirded”) between 55,000 and 62,500 (estimates vary) people from the South Pacific Islands to work on sugarcane plantations between 1863 and 1900.
Cuban sugar derived from sugarcane was exported to the USSR, where it received price supports and was ensured a guaranteed market. The 1991 dissolution of the Soviet state forced the closure of most of Cuba’s sugar industry.
Sugarcane remains an important part of the economy of Guyana, Belize, Barbados, and Haiti, along with the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, and other islands.
About 70% of the sugar produced globally comes from S. officinarum and hybrids using this species.
Sugarcane cultivation requires a tropical or temperate climate, with a minimum of 24 inches (60 centimeters) of annual moisture. It is one of the most efficient photosynthesizers in the plant kingdom. It is a C4 plant, able to convert up to 1% of incident solar energy into biomass. In prime growing regions, such as Mauritius, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, India, Guyana, Indonesia, Pakistan, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Australia, Ecuador, Cuba, the Philippines, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Hawaii, sugarcane crops can produce over 15 kg/m² of cane. Once a major crop of the southeastern region of the United States, sugarcane cultivation has declined there in recent decades, and is now primarily confined to Florida, Louisiana, and South Texas.
Sugarcane is cultivated in the tropics and subtropics in areas with a plentiful supply of water for a continuous period of more than six to seven months each year, either from natural rainfall or through irrigation. The crop does not tolerate severe frosts. Therefore, most of the world’s sugarcane is grown between 22°N and 22°S, and some up to 33°N and 33°S. When sugarcane crop is found outside this range, such as the Natal region of South Africa, it is normally due to anomalous climatic conditions in the region, such as warm ocean currents that sweep down the coast. In terms of altitude, sugarcane crop is found up to 5,200 feet (1,600 m) close to the equator in countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.
Sugarcane can be grown on many soils ranging from highly fertile well-drained mollisols, through heavy cracking vertisols, infertile acid oxisols, peaty histosols, to rocky andisols. Both plentiful sunshine and water supplies increase cane production. This has made desert countries with good irrigation facilities such as Egypt some of the highest-yielding sugarcane-cultivating regions.
Although some sugarcanes produce seeds, modern stem cutting has become the most common reproduction method. Each cutting must contain at least one bud, and the cuttings are sometimes hand-planted. In more technologically advanced countries like the United States and Australia, billet planting is common. Billets harvested from a mechanical harvester are planted by a machine that opens and recloses the ground. Once planted, a stand can be harvested several times; after each harvest, the cane sends up new stalks, called ratoons. Successive harvests give decreasing yields, eventually justifying replanting. Two to 10 harvests are usually made depending on the type of culture. In a country with a mechanical agriculture looking for a high production of large fields, like in North America, sugar canes are replanted after two or three harvests to avoid a lowering in yields. In countries with a more traditional type of agriculture with smaller fields and hand harvesting, like in the French island la Réunion, sugar canes are often harvested up to 10 years before replanting.
Sugarcane is harvested by hand and mechanically. Hand harvesting accounts for more than half of production, and is dominant in the developing world. In hand harvesting, the field is first set on fire. The fire burns dry leaves, and chases away or kills any lurking venomous snakes, without harming the stalks and roots. Harvesters then cut the cane just above ground-level using cane knives or machetes. A skilled harvester can cut 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) of sugarcane per hour.
Mechanical harvesting uses a combine, or sugarcane harvester. The Austoft 7000 series, the original modern harvester design, has now been copied by other companies, including Cameco / John Deere. The machine cuts the cane at the base of the stalk, strips the leaves, chops the cane into consistent lengths and deposits it into a transporter following alongside. The harvester then blows the trash back onto the field. Such machines can harvest 100 long tons (100 t) each hour; however, harvested cane must be rapidly processed. Once cut, sugarcane begins to lose its sugar content, and damage to the cane during mechanical harvesting accelerates this decline. This decline is offset because a modern chopper harvester can complete the harvest faster and more efficiently than hand cutting and loading. Austoft also developed a series of hydraulic high-lift infield transporters to work alongside their harvesters to allow even more rapid transfer of cane to, for example, the nearest railway siding. This mechanical harvesting doesn’t require the field to be set on fire; the remains left in the field by the machine consist of the top of the sugar cane and the dead leaves, which act as mulch for the next round of planting.
Traditionally, sugarcane processing requires two stages. Mills extract raw sugar from freshly harvested cane and “mill-white” sugar is sometimes produced immediately after the first stage at sugar-extraction mills, intended for local consumption. Sugar crystals appear naturally white in color during the crystallization process. Sulfur dioxide is added to inhibit the formation of color-inducing molecules as well as to stabilize the sugar juices during evaporation. Refineries, often located nearer to consumers in North America, Europe, and Japan, then produce refined white sugar, which is 99 percent sucrose. These two stages are slowly merging. Increasing affluence in the sugar-producing tropics increased demand for refined sugar products, driving a trend toward combined milling and refining.
Sugarcane processing produces cane sugar (sucrose) from sugarcane. Other products of the processing include bagasse, molasses, and filtercake.
Bagasse, the residual dry fiber of the cane after cane juice has been extracted, is used for several purposes:
- fuel for the boilers and kilns
- production of paper, paperboard products, and reconstituted panelboard
- agricultural mulch, and more
- as a raw material for production of chemicals.
The primary use of bagasse and bagasse residue is as a fuel source for the boilers in the generation of process steam in sugar plants. Dried filtercake is used as an animal feed supplement, fertilizer, and source of sugarcane wax.
Molasses is produced in two forms: Blackstrap, which has a characteristic strong flavor, and a purer molasses syrup. Blackstrap molasses is sold as a food and dietary supplement. It is also a common ingredient in animal feed, is used to produce ethanol and rum, and in the manufacturing of citric acid. Purer molasses syrups are sold as molasses, and may also be blended with maple syrup, invert sugars, or corn syrup. Both forms of molasses are used in baking.
Sugar refining further purifies the raw sugar. It is first mixed with heavy syrup and then centrifuged in a process called “affination”. Its purpose is to wash away the sugar crystals’ outer coating, which is less pure than the crystal interior. The remaining sugar is then dissolved to make a syrup, about 60 percent solids by weight.
The sugar solution is clarified by the addition of phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide, which combine to precipitate calcium phosphate. The calcium phosphate particles entrap some impurities and absorb others, and then float to the top of the tank, where they can be skimmed off. An alternative to this “phosphatation” technique is “carbonatation”, which is similar, but uses carbon dioxide and calcium hydroxide to produce a calcium carbonate precipitate.
After filtering any remaining solids, the clarified syrup is decolorized by filtration through activated carbon. Bone char or coal-based activated carbon is traditionally used in this role. Some remaining color-forming impurities are adsorbed by the carbon. The purified syrup is then concentrated to supersaturation and repeatedly crystallized in a vacuum, to produce white refined sugar. As in a sugar mill, the sugar crystals are separated from the molasses by centrifuging. Additional sugar is recovered by blending the remaining syrup with the washings from affination and again crystallizing to produce brown sugar. When no more sugar can be economically recovered, the final molasses still contains 20–30 percent sucrose and 15–25 percent glucose and fructose.
To produce granulated sugar, in which individual grains do not clump, sugar must be dried, first by heating in a rotary dryer, and then by blowing cool air through it for several days.
Ribbon cane is a subtropical type that was once widely grown in the southern United States, as far north as coastal North Carolina. The juice was extracted with horse or mule-powered crushers; the juice was boiled, like maple syrup, in a flat pan, and then used in the syrup form as a food sweetener. It is not currently a commercial crop, but a few growers find ready sales for their product.
Ethanol is generally available as a byproduct of sugar production. It can be used as a biofuel alternative to gasoline, and is widely used in cars in Brazil. It is an alternative to gasoline, and may become the primary product of sugarcane processing, rather than sugar. In Brazil, gasoline is required to contain at least 22 percent bioethanol. This bioethanol is sourced from Brazil’s large sugarcane crop.
The production of ethanol from sugar cane is more energy efficient than from corn or sugar beets or palm/vegetable oils, particularly if cane bagasse is used to produce heat and power for the process. Furthermore, if biofuels are used for crop production and transport, the fossil energy input needed for each ethanol energy unit can be very low. EIA estimates that with an integrated sugar cane to ethanol technology, the well-to-wheels CO2 emissions can be 90 percent lower than conventional gasoline.
In most countries where sugarcane is cultivated, there are several foods and popular dishes derived directly from it, such as:
- Raw sugarcane: chewed to extract the juice
- Sayur nganten: an Indonesian soup made with the stem of trubuk (Saccharum edule), a type of sugarcane
- Sugarcane juice: a combination of fresh juice, extracted by hand or small mills, with a touch of lemon and ice to make a popular drink, known variously as air tebu, usacha rass, guarab, guarapa, guarapo, papelón, aseer asab, ganna sharbat, mosto, caldo de cana, nước miá
- Syrup: a traditional sweetener in soft drinks, now largely supplanted in the United States by high fructose corn syrup, which is less expensive because of corn subsidies and sugar tariffs
- Molasses: used as a sweetener and a syrup accompanying other foods, such as cheese or cookies
- Jaggery: a solidified molasses, known as gur or gud or gul in India, is traditionally produced by evaporating juice to make a thick sludge, and then cooling and molding it in buckets. Modern production partially freeze dries the juice to reduce caramelization and lighten its color. It is used as sweetener in cooking traditional entrees, sweets and desserts.
- Falernum: a sweet, and slightly alcoholic drink made from sugarcane juice
- Cachaça: the most popular distilled alcoholic beverage in Brazil; a liquor made of the distillation of sugarcane juice
- Rum: a liquor made from sugarcane products, typically molasses but sometimes also cane juice. It is most commonly produced in the Caribbean and environs.
- Basi: a fermented alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane juice produced in the Philippines and Guyana
- Panela: solid pieces of sucrose and fructose obtained from the boiling and evaporation of sugarcane juice; a food staple in Colombia and other countries in South and Central America
- Rapadura: a sweet flour that is one of the simplest refinings of sugarcane juice; common in Latin American countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela (where it is known as papelón) and the Caribbean
- Rock candy: crystallized cane juice
- Gâteau de Sirop: a syrup cake in Cajun cuisine
Scott #124 was released on October 1, 1940 — a 5-pence stamp depicting surgarcane. The rose red border with King George VI portrait and yellow green vignette were a color replacement; the original (Scott #123) was released on April 5, 1938, printed in rose red and blue. The stamps were designed by Mrs. C. D. Lovejoy and recess printed by Waterlow & Sons Ltd. of London on paper with a multi-script CA watermark, perforated 12½.
Sugarcane is thought to be indigenous to the islands of the South Pacific. It was found growing in Fiji by the early European discoverers and settlers. Fijians grew sugarcane for chewing and they are known to have used the juice for sweetening food.
Sugar was the second choice to cotton when early Fiji planters decided which crop would bring them the most money. Cotton production in the United States slumped during the Civil War of the early 1860’s and world markets opened to new producers. Prospects for cotton growing in Fiji looked bright. Cotton enterprises in Fiji began to fail when the Civil War ended and American plantations began to recover.
In 1862, David Whippy produced the first sugar made in Fiji on the island of Wakaya. By 1870, sugar had displaced copra as the colony’s main export. An early boost to the sugar industry came from Ratu Cakobau, who was worried about a decline in Fiji’s economy because of internal strife and cotton’s failure. In December 1871, Cakobau offered £500 for “the first and best” crop of 20 tons of sugar produced from locally grown cane.
In 1872, a small experimental sugar mill was erected in Suva by Brewer and Joske. This was followed a year later by a larger mill. About 640 acres of cane were planted on the site now largely occupied by the city of Suva.
Fiji’s first sugarcane was grown on the plantation system. Many small mills — 34 at the industry’s early peak — were erected on the larger islands in high rainfall areas. These small mills were unprofitable because sugar content of cane was low and manpower for the plantations was scarce.
In 1879, the British Colonial Government began to recruit indentured laborers from India and South East Asia to work on cotton, coffee, sugar and other plantations. Over 37 years, 61,000 such workers arrived in Fiji. They came from different regions and from different backgrounds and castes. Many came from rural Indian villages.
The Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR), a well established Australian company, began operations in Fiji in 1880, and it brought more resources and experience than previous entrepreneurs. CSR’s first mill commenced operating at Nausori in 1882 and closed in 1959. In the following years four more mills were established:
- Rarawai Mill on the bank of the Ba River (1886)
- Labasa Mill on Vanua Levu (1894)
- CSR’s largest mill commenced crushing at Lautoka (1903)
- Penang Mill, founded by the two Wilmer brothers in 1881 at Rakiraki was acquired by CSR from the Melbourne State Company (1926)
The indentured servant contracts required laborers to work in Fiji for a period of five years in often difficult conditions. Most of them stayed on when sugar became the main crop and more Indians came to Fiji until the indenture system ended in 1916. Plantation workers became very scarce. To solve the labor problem, several schemes were tried before the small-farm system was developed. Indian farmers were settled on farms averaging 4.05 hectares, with the farmer and his family doing most of the work.
From the early 1900s, Indians started arriving in Fiji as free settlers. The Indian migrants had the right of a free journey back to India, but the majority chose to stay in Fiji. Nowadays, most Fijian Indians have lost touch with and feel no connection with the country of their ancestors. They feel as much Fijian as their native ethnic Fijian counterparts. Fijians of Indian descent are concentrated in the so-called Sugar Belt and in cities and towns on the northern and western coasts of Viti Levu. Differences between the two communities, ethnic Fijians and Indian Fijians, have characterized Fijian politics since independence in 1970. The intermingling of peoples makes Fiji a colorful, multi-ethnic country.
The Sugar Industry Act of 1984 restructured the industry and established three new organizations: the Sugar Commission of Fiji, the Sugar Industry Tribunal and the Sugar Cane Growers Council. It also established the Mill Area Committees as an advisory body on local sugar matters.
The Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC) is the government-owned sugar milling company in Fiji and has a monopoly on the production of raw sugar in Fiji. It is the largest public enterprise in the country employing nearly 3,000 people, while another 200,000 or more depend on it for their livelihood in rural sugar cane belts of Fiji. It operates four sugar mills: the Lautoka mill, the Rarawai mill in Ba, the Penang mill in Rakiraki in Viti Levu, and the Labasa mill in Vanua Levu. The mill in Lautoka is the largest in Fiji and once held the title of being the largest sugar mill in the southern hemisphere.
Soon after it took over assets of Colonial Sugar Refining Company, FSC embarked upon expansion of Fiji’s milling capacity. The four mills are currently capable of manufacturing more than 500,000 tonnes of sugar per season. Some consideration has been given to increase mill capacity up to 600,000 tonnes a year. Such expansion would require substantial investment.
Under the Seaqaqa cane development scheme, over 5,000 hectares were brought under cane by 1980. This project cost $22 million and accommodated 800 ethnic Fijian and Ind-Fijian farmers. Funds were borrowed from the World Bank to help finance the project.
The government recognizes the problem of being excessively dependent on just one crop. The government has, among other measures, encouraged tourism in an effort to diversify the economy. However, tourism is sensitive to a number of factors, and its contribution to the economy is still less than that of sugar.