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Text of Samir Somaiya's Gundu Rao Memorial Lecture address at the Annual Convention of the Deccan Sugar Technologists Association held at Belagavi, in July 2017.

Jul 21, 2017

Cane (Crop of the past or Feedstock of the future)

The world is living in a fossil fuel economy. And this has led to tremendous growth in the world economy. But as we progress, we have also seen, that the current methods of consumption, we are depleting resources. In the future, we will have to adapt to a more renewable future.

Renewables are interesting, and fundamentally different from fossil resources. The focus on fossil resources, is extraction. Every subsequent year, you will have less of the resource. In renewables, it is how much you can make available, and then what you can harvest. And, if done right, you could have equal resource every year.

So, I will speak on the raw material, the process, and the product. As I go along, I will also give suggestions for research that DSTA could consider.

Raw Material

Imagine having been prescribed medicine for your health, without having had a checkup. Would we even consider doing that? I think that the same is the case today, in the work we do in soil science. In the past couple of years, we have done over 4,000 tests for soil, and we have seen that the application of inputs to the soil is independent of what the soil needs.Farmers apply inputs to the soil as suggested by tradition, what the neighbor is doing, or what the marketing company is recommending.

To get better yields, we must focus on soil health. And to understand soil health, we must first understand it, what it has, and what it needs.

Once we know what it is, we must then focus on how to keep it good for all time. There are various ways in which we can do this. From having an educated understanding and informed application of what is being recommended by the fertilizer companies, to a greater education and understanding of the experiments being done in agro ecology. Using of farm produce itself, to make the farm productive. I have seen farms using a combination of cow urine, garlic, jaggery etc, to make combinations of fertilizer and pesticide additions to enhance soil health and fertility.

Experiments in Brazil (to keep the soil wild). There have also been experiments in Brazil, where the soil and cane have been allowed to grow using organic methods, and biological means of pest control.

Recommendation 1: We must encourage research that integrates modern research and traditional methods

There is also much research on use of some pesticides, and effect on human health. Recently, I read a book ‘Living Downstream, by Sandra Steingraber (http://www.livingdownstream.com/) that looks at modern practices and their detrimental effect on our health. Can we look at this research, and examine our response.

Recommendation 2: Being mindful of our agricultural practices and study their effects, if any, human health.

Soil is one aspect of sustainability. The next aspect is water. We are constantly being reminded, that we are in the Deccan plateau, and that water is scarce. Sugarcane drives the local economy. Sugarcane contributes to livelihoods, and provides sustainable energy in the form of renewable electricity (cogeneration), and biofuels (ethanol). The business of sugarcane processing, is also carbon mitigating, when a carbon balance is drawn around the entire sugarcane economic envelope.

But, water is a scarce commodity, and its use must be measured. The advent of drip technology promises much saving, but it has not spread sufficiently. As of today, total penetration of drip is small. Estimates in Maharashtra are about 18% and Karnataka about 10%. Even though the use of this reduces water consumption by 50%, and increases yield by 30-40%. Systematic efforts need to be made by the mills with their farmers to increase adoption.

There is an explosion of technologies that further help in the monitoring of cane (or for that matter, any plant growth). IOT (internet of things) and new wireless technologies allow for monitoring moisture, and subsequent automation in delivering water when dry will further help plant growth and optimization.

Drones are being used in agriculture. They help the farmer see his/her plot in a way that is not seen otherwise. See patterns, multi-spectral, and also over time.

Recently, when in the USA, I saw a chip being implanted in a tree, that wirelessly communicates moisture content.

Recommendation 3: How do we best integrate these technologies including IOT for better yields.

But even if we have so much information, what recommendations are we providing. Are these static? Have these changed with time? There is an explosion of data, are our recommendations dynamic? Are we learning.

Recommendation 4: How do we give personalised recommendations, instead of static, one size fits all approaches

There is a company, ‘The Climate Corporation’, that was purchased by Monsanto. This gives detailed analysis of the farmer’s plot. And what needs to be done on it. Also, the introduction of cane varieties, intercropping, In March this year, there was an article in the New York Times, ‘How to Steal a River’. This talks about a river in Kerala. Sand acts as an aquifer. When the rainfalls, it helps recharge the ground. The article said, that illegal sand mining has ensured that what were flowing and perennial rivers have become seasonal, and the water tables have dropped. So, while we try to reduce use of water, we have to also see that the harvesting of water (or its conservation) also takes place. Otherwise, we will continue to see what we have been. Rajendra Singh, waterman of India, says that the water that falls on the ground, must be taken under water. Through the planting of trees, and we have to also ensure, that our sand in the river bed is conserved.

Recommendation 5: Water Conservation, and a holistic approach to achieving this.

Ultimately, all this has to be done, with a view on the farmer, and their livelihood. Unlike Brazil or the USA, where farms are very large, and there is corporate agriculture, our agrarian economy is small holder farming. We have to ensure that the farmer continues to make a good livelihood of cane.

What is the area under cane? Are we going to accept that we will always have 90 tons per hectare of cane, and that recoveries will remain static or decline. Will we look at the growth in recoveries that UP has accomplished this past year? How do we combine higher yields, higher sugar content, and a smarted application of knowledge and inputs, so as to ensure that the farmer gets the best yield, and the earth is healthy enough to sustain this agriculture for a long time to come.

Recommendation 6: Targeting better yields without compromising soil fertility and improving farmer livelihoods.


There are two words that are gaining currency in the world of manufacturing. Cascading, and Circular. What is cascading? And what is circular? By Cascading, we mean the processes that the sugar industry, the world over has been practicing for decades. You make sugar, the molasses cascades to ethanol production, the spent wash cascades to biogas, or steam, or spent wash cascades to make biocompost, etc. Similarly, bagasse cascades to the manufacture of power, or it cascades to make paper or particle board.

By circular, we mean how much of the product Is recycled. So, if I consume water, and sugarcane itself can be considered as a bottle of water, how much of this circles back to the process. Does the water that we get from the sugar plant circle to the fermenters? Does any of this circle back to the power plant? Today, at Sameerwadi, except for the initial filling of water, we require no fresh water to run the sugar process. In fact, the excess condensate is recycled to the cogeneration plant and distillery. It was in recognition of these efforts that the company received an award from ICC and FICCI.

Recommendation 7: Reducing raw water consumption to 0

The use of bio-compost to the farm encircles a wider circular envelope.

This also applies to heat. If I use the heat in the flue gas, to dry the incoming bagasse stream, then once again I have a circular process.

This brings me to energy

How much energy are we putting into the plant? What is the steam % cane? Where are the opportunities for energy recovery? What is the minimum that we can go to? What technologies are we using to discover this minimum, and how do we arrive at what is optimum.

When I joined the business 50% steam on cane was the norm. Exhaust steam used to be used at many places in the plant. And with good reason. One did not want to save bagasse. The creation of a power PPA encouraged energy and subsequent bagasse saving, for use in high pressure turbines for export to the grid. Today, continuous pans and FFEs have made 30% steam on cane possible. When there was no ability to sell excess power, there was no generation of excess power. Today, it is possible to export 110 units per ton of cane crushed. A paper published in 2001, detailing schemes of a gasifier and an integrated gas turbine demonstrated a much larger number of exportable surplus.

Recommendation 7: Steam% cane to 30%

So, the point that I am making is, what do how do we look at the resources we generate. How do we cascade them, and how do we reuse them?


Sugar is our main product. As they say, it is our bread and butter. A few months ago, I attended the NY sugar dinner, and had a chance to meet the head of the WSRO. The website home page of WSRO (www.wsro.org) says, ‘researching the effects of sugar on nutrition, health and wellness worldwide’.

I think that this is important. Much money is being spent, by NGOs, and Governments, trying to find evidence to say that sugar is not healthy. And there is no research being done or supported by the industry, to see the effects of sugar on health and nutrition. On whether, our traditional dietary approaches to using sugar are healthy.

She mentioned that there is a storm, but sugar technologists and management are more concerned with their mills, their efficiencies, their climate, and their Government policies. She mentioned that research must be done that addresses the public perception that is being built simply because of the incredible amount of money being spent to find sugar guilty.

We all need to find out what the facts are, and promote a healthy lifestyle, and a healthy diet. But we should be mindful, that our market is being eroded. ANd we should put the correct research there, and not just lose because we did not put our money or resources to the research.

Recommendation 8: Sugar and health, nutrition research


Now we know that ethanol is very versatile, and it can be used for transportation, drinking, and the manufacture of chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

We are here in Belgaum, and I did an analysis of the petrol consumption here. In Belgaum, petrol consumption is 1010.5 KL/month. Or 10 million litres per month, so 1.2 billion litres per year. Or, 12 crore litres per year. The amount of cane crushed in Belgaum district is 79 million tons. At the approximation of about 10 litres of ethanol per ton of cane crushed (assuming that ethanol is only made from molasses), we can have the production of about 8 crore litres of ethanol per year.

Litre for litre, that is 65% of the petrol consumption, and in terms of energy value (since ethanol as 67% of the energy value as petrol), about 40% of the petrol consumption. This means, that at current levels of consumption, if we followed the Brazilian model, where all ethanol, or a percentage of this, could be used as a fuel in the vehicles, we could meet 40% of the need of petrol consumption in this district.

Recommendation 9: Working with auto companies to enable wider use of ethanol as a fuel

Biogas is also produced as a product of bio-methanation. This could also be converted into a transport fuel.

Recommendation 10: Biogas as a fuel

Petrol prices in Belgavi are Rs. 63 per litre. In energy value, this is equivalent to Rs. 42 per litre. Could we not, as the sugar industry be allowed to sell ethanol as a fuel into the market. The demand for petrol is growing, will this demand only be met from imports. When we talk of a circular economy, can we not draw a boundary around what we have.

Many say, where will the ethanol come from. I think we have to take a wider view. Are we going to assume that the productivity of cane will remain static. We are all aware, that in smaller plots, cane yields of over 200 tons/hectare have been witnessed by many of us. Can we not, then target a yield of 125 tons per hectare as an average? There is much happening in the field of cellulosic ethanol. Maybe, in the future, there can be a drop-in conversion costs of converting bagasse to sugars. Coupled with lower steam on cane percentages, the higher bagasse savings can be converted to cellulosic ethanol.

Or, the electricity generation can also be used to power transportation. I have just returned from the USA. My friend has a Tesla. Volvo has just announced, that it will fully transition to electric or hybrid vehicles. At so many places in California, there are electricity charging stations.

Other products

On this same trip, I was at San Fransisco airport, there was 2 bins at the airport for trash. One that said ‘recyle bottles and cans’, and the other for ‘composting’. And the sign above it said, almost everything that you purchase here is compostable. Once again, a circular economy. From the earth, back to the earth.

Like compostable utensils from bagasse, or other agricultural residues, much work is happening in bio polymers, bio chemicals, and also using synthetic biology to convert sugars to high value compounds. The possibilities are endless.

We have to transition to a cleaner and a more renewable future, and must certainly, a sustainable future. One that is a more self-contained economy.

Our past has laid the strong foundations. Let us chart out and build a futuristic path.

Samir Somaiya

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