To fill the growing demand for sugar in the country, the government in 2011 took up an initiative to increase sugar production by cultivating a new sugarcrop: sugar beet. As part of that, it launched a pilot project for "Development of Sugar beet Cultivation Technologies in Bangladesh" at a cost of Tk3.29 crore.
The Bangladesh Sugarcrop Research Institute (BSRI) conducted the experiment in 15 upazilas under 14 districts across the country and the result was truly encouraging as scientists found that the climate in Bangladesh is fit for sugar beet cultivation.
But, commercial cultivation of sugar beet could not take off in the country in these long years as the existing sugar mills do not have any plants to make sugar from sugar beet.
"We have conducted all agronomic trials, including entomology and disease-related trials. The trial found that it is possible to cultivate sugar beet all over Bangladesh. We have recommended it in the cultivation package. But we could not give out among farmers because we do not have any sugar mill to process the sugar beet to produce sugar," Kuasha Mahmud, director (research) of the BSRI told The Business Standard.
For the continuation of the research, the ministry of agriculture took up another programme for the cultivation and extension of sugar beet for a year at a cost of around Tk74 lakh. The project expired in 2016. Under the one-year programme, the authorities conducted a growth study and performance on 22 varieties of imported sugar beet in different districts across the country.
The second research identified which varieties will be suitable for Bangladesh. After the growth study, two varieties of sugar beet Shuvra and Kaveri BSRI Sugarbeet-1 and BSRI Sugarbeet-2 have been registered with the Bangladesh Seed Certification Agency for commercial cultivation.
The main characteristic of BSRI Sugarbeet-1 is a high sugar recovery capacity of 13.13% high yielding 75 tonnes per hectare while the main characteristic of BSRI Sugar beet-2 is a high sugar recovery capacity of 13.90% high yielding 100 tonnes per hectare. These two varieties are tolerant to salinity too.
An advantageous farming
Sugarcrop scientists said the cultivation of sugar beet is advantageous. One can cultivate sugar beet on a piece of land in five months only. As a result, one can cultivate other crops on the same land for the rest of the year. But this is not possible in the case of sugarcane cultivation, because it takes a whole year for the cultivation of sugarcane.
Scientists said that globally the amount of sugar is much higher in sugar beet than that in sugarcane. The amount of sugar in sugar beet depends on climatic conditions. Sugar beet is a crop of the temperate zone. In those countries, this crop gets clear sunlight and more sunlight hours. As a result, the recovery rate of sugar is higher. The recovery rate of sugar is as much as 17% to 18% from sugar beet in those countries.
Sugarcrop scientists also said that even though the sunshine hour is low in Bangladesh, the recovery rate from sugar beet is around 13% to 14%. This means if one takes 100 kilograms of sugar beet, one will get 13-14 kilograms of sugar, while one can get 11-13 kilograms of sugar from 100 kilograms of sugarcanes.
Scientists said the difference of 2% is a huge amount.
High officials of some state-owned sugar mills said that with the standard of sugarcane worsening with time, the production of sugar is falling. In the past, sugar mills could produce 8-9 kilograms of sugar from 100 kilograms of sugarcane. As the machinery of the sugarcane got old, the production has gone down to 5-6 kilograms. As a result, the sugar mills find it difficult to reach a break-even point let alone make a profit. The sugar mills have been incurring losses for ages.
Now the annual demand for sugar in the country is around 18-20 lakh tonnes. The government-owned sugar mills can supply only 50,000 tonnes of sugar. The private sector caters to the rest of the demand from import and refinement.
Mills not ready
The state-run sugar-producing agency, the Bangladesh Sugar and Food Industries Corporation, took up a project to modernise the existing Thakurgaon Sugar Mills, setting up new plants for processing sugar beet and a distillery at Thakurgaon Sugar Mills Limited in 2016 at a cost of Tk485.62 crore.
"When we floated a tender, no company showed interest in participating in such a low amount. The authorities floated international tender three times but they did not get any response," said Md Ashraf Ali, director (Sugarcane Development and Research), of the corporation.
He said as it was not possible to make the project viable, the date expired. Finally, the planning ministry scrapped the project last year.
"We are now trying to make project proposals for North Bengal Sugar Mills and Thakurgaon Sugar Mills Limited."
Md Ashraf Ali said they have no plan to set up a sugar beet processing plant at the North Bengal Sugar Mills. He is not sure whether sugar beet processing will be included in the project proposal.
Kabir Ahammed Sarker, chief of Planning and Development at the Bangladesh Sugar and Food Industries Corporation, told TBS that now they have sent a new proposal to the ministry of industries to conduct a feasibility study on the modernisation of the existing mill, sugar beet processing plants and a distillery at the Thakurgaon Sugar Mills Limited.
"If we could not produce sugar from sugar beet, what would be the success of the initiative?" said Md Ashraf Ali.