Can an Overlooked Millet Make Large Parts of India Sugar-Producing Regions?
Sweet sorghum may be able to replace the sugarcane crop in water-scarce situations and help meet demand for sugar and ethanol production. — Alok Singh
India may be celebrating 2023 as the ‘International Year of Millets’, serving dishes made with these grains to diplomats and parliamentarians, but unfortunately, it has overlooked an important millet – sweet sorghum (jowar) – for its farmers. This crop holds the potential to convert vast swathes of rural India into sugar-producing regions. Not only will this improve farmers’ incomes but being a millet, these crops use much less water than crops like sugarcane.
The sweet sorghum varieties were first introduced in India from the US in the 1970s. The millet was commonly known as the “sugar of the north” in the US because sugarcane couldn’t be grown in the Union states during the American Civil War and hence another sugar-producing crop was required to meet growing demands.
Sweet sorghum proved to be a likely candidate and even in modern times from 1930-1970s family-owned small syrup-producing units sprung up in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. Wanting to understand more about the crop, I travelled through Kentucky, Hyderabad, Jashpur, Chhattisgarh and finally ended my journey in Benaras.
On the sweet sorghum trail
A peachy sun was setting on the Kentucky horizon. Its rays colouring the skies with hues of orange, pink and magenta. I was standing with Homer Paul Lovelace, farm manager and seed ambassador for Seedleaf, overlooking his family’s grey worn-down tobacco barn. In the field ahead stood hundreds of thin, long, red-headed sweet sorghum plants waving at us.
“They are ready for harvest,” Paul picked up his machete and started chopping at them. In a couple of hours, Paul had a cartload of sweet sorghum to take for the next juice pressing. I watched him press the juice and then put it out in the evaporation trays for it to convert into molasses. While looking at the evaporation trays, I started thinking about sugarcane.
Paul caught my thought and said, “I first tasted freshly pressed sugar cane juice on a street in Mysore India in 2004. That delicious and inspiring experience made me wonder why, in all my years of growing, processing, and tasting sorghum, I had never enjoyed sorghum cane juice in this way. We do now. I’m so excited that Della sweet sorghum is now thriving in India.”
Paul is part of the heritage sweet sorghum revival in Kentucky and hopes to spread this healthy millet into the communities again. “I’ve actively grown Della sweet sorghum since 1999. My parents grew up in this Appalachian Community, where collaboratively growing, milling, and producing sweet sorghum syrup (molasses) provided supplementary income and semi-self-sufficiency to so many, my family included,” he said.
“Some of my earliest memories conjure mule-turned sorghum mills, standing among the massive canes, smelling the sweet boiling green juice from miles away, and the joys of sampling the final product with sections of sorghum cane dipped into the fresh, and still too hot to eat, molasses. Though I left Kentucky for college, I knew that I needed sorghum and sorghum culture in my life. This crop has the power to transform rural America and India together ecologically and economically. India already has the sugarcane infrastructure, sweet sorghum will fit right in without any extra costs,” he added.
Expanding sweet sorghum production in India
It was a foggy November morning on the banks of the river Ganga in Benaras. The sun was still hiding behind the grey mist and tall sticky green plants were waving to the birds. Manas Singh (32), a farmer, seeing the seed head of this plant turn dark red was out with his sickle – it was harvest time.
“This is the first time we are growing sweet sorghum. We had grown jowar before but never knew it could produce sugar. We had got these seeds of an American sweet sorghum variety which can be used for sugar production, fodder, and also for grain. It is a fascinating crop,” Manas said.
After his first successful harvest in Benaras, Manas plans to expand this sweet sorghum cultivation to central India into Jashpur, Chattisgarh for the kharif season. His parent organisation Baba Bhagwan Ram Trust is working with local administration to bring this miracle crop to the region and potentially convert the region into a sugar-producing area.
“We use very little water and even then there is no requirement for chemical fertilisers or pesticides. We got very few pest attacks also. The stock is thinner than sugarcane, but the juice is much more nutritious and tasty. Our organisation spent very little to grow the crop. And this is a successful crop from the US, why shouldn’t it grow here too?” Manas said.
We took a tour of Jashpur to understand the agricultural climate and the need for ecologically sound crops in the region. “Sweet sorghum crop can be a big cash crop, and hence will transform the region in few years,” Manas added.
But to get the final word I went to the Indian Institute Millet Research Institute (IIMR), Hyderabad to meet with the principal Scientist and PI (Sweet and High Biomass Sorghum) A.V. Umakant.
”India has achieved more than 10% blending of petrol with ethanol recently and the next target is 20% blending by 2025. The fact remains that ethanol production from sugarcane molasses alone does not ensure optimum supply levels needed to meet the demand at any given time owing to reasons such as the cyclical nature of sugarcane cultivation, difficulty in increasing sugarcane area due to high water intensiveness of the crop, erratic monsoon and power supply,” he explained.
“Increasing the area under sugarcane at the cost of diverting land from other staple food crops is undesirable. There is every need for exploiting alternate feedstocks for biofuel production. Sweet sorghum, a widely adapted sugar crop with high potential for bioenergy and ethanol production and which produces higher biomass yield with fewer inputs is listed as a candidate crop for biofuel production in our National Policy on Biofuels 2018. Sweet sorghum is an attractive crop for biofuel production and in the era of climate change, it is good renewable feedstock suitable for cultivation under arid and semi-arid regions where water is going to become a scarce resource,” he said.
But was biofuel it? What were its other uses? “Sweet sorghum is a good source of fodder and there are reports of an increase in milk and meat yields when animals are fed with this kind of fodder. Besides this, sweet sorghum can also be utilised for biogas production as well as in the paper and pulp industry,” he answered.
The cost of cultivation would be Rs 12-15,000 per acre, Umakant said. He further explained that the grains, stalk (for sugar production) and bagasse (dry fibrous material) are three sources of income for the farmers and the returns would be quite high when all three products are used for ethanol production.
“And yes, sweet sorghum can replace sugarcane in water-scarce situations,” said Umakant, referring to the vast potential of this crop in water-scarce areas. However, the academic hinted that “the dominance of the sugar industry for sugar and ethanol production in the country” was a potential roadblock for this millet variety.
Having seen and understood the ground realities, it is clear that India is missing an important opportunity by not adopting sweet sorghum for sugar and ethanol production.
Indra Shekhar Singh is an independent agri-policy analyst & writer.