An unconventional look at the sugar industry

Dear Editor,

Two plants, sugarcane and bamboo, both members of the grass family and C4 plants, reproduce themselves rapidly, one in a single year the other in 4 years. Their bio-mass increase far exceeds anything else we can grow. They play an unrecognized and valuable role in carbon capture if they are not burnt, absorbing 7 times as much carbon as standing mature forest as in interior Guyana. Rice also outdoes forest in this way. These have an underestimated contribution to climate change.

Secondly, there are far more uses and products that can come from sugarcane juice and fibre (bagasse) than we now make or manage to make. What are these? In addition to making rum from molasses, it is possible to make citric acid used in food preservation and processing like sodium benzoate. The value of citric acid is 5 times the molasses from which it is derived. We also need to calculate the value increase from rum making. This takes us to ethanol as an additive to gasoline. A third of a gallon of gasoline can be ethanol, savings of 1/3 of the gasoline imported. We have been making illegal ‘bush rum’ so why not legal ethanol for our cars? A 500- 600 gallon plastic tank filled with cane juice is converted with yeast into alcohol in 7 days. It is a bit more difficult to distil the alcohol to start filling up. We reduce the import of gasoline by 1/3 and the dollars for paying for it (foreign exchange and trade deficit). We open opportunities for entrepreneurship and job creation. Yes, it is like making ‘bush rum’ but with licensing and inspection to make it legal. And the addition of some kerosene to make it undrinkable, so it goes to the market for which it was intended.

Even more far-reaching and of greater consequence to animal production (livestock, small ruminants, poultry and fish farming) is the production of protein from molasses and yeast. This was done in Jamaica during the Second World War. The protein was used to improve the nutrition value of food and is still sold with the brand name ‘B’. It was continued in Cuba after this. Twenty-four of the 26 amino acids for full spectrum protein are produced in this process. Lysine and methionine are missing. Malt and the b vitamins can also be produced. Malt production leads to other products like malt beverages. (All beverages ‒ rum, pop, fruit flavoured carbonated drinks, etc) accounted for about $900 million TT in 2008 in Trinidad & Tobago.) This technology of course is part of sugar bio-technology and our Guyanese chemists and bio-chemists would find this a simple challenge. We should not have to import such expertise in a national drive to self-reliance and technical competence. I would relish the opportunity to enlarge on this in another letter. A complete protein can be had from combining methane (C2H2)2 and ammonia (NH3) as the Danes and Norwegians have shown. Nitrogen is a rather inert gas and it is more difficult to get it to react to form new compounds. Other gases have cycles like carbon which we manipulate more easily. Advances in the bio-chemistry of cell biology, DNA and RNA, help us to understand nitrogen better. Algae hold a great deal of promise.

There is the magic of nitrogen fixation in the bacteria in the small white nodules in the roots of legumes like bora. Clover has been included in crop rotation for centuries to maintain soil fertility and is important for animal feed as part of pasture management and fodder cultivation. We do have clover here growing in short grass; we just don’t notice it or appreciate its role. It is only during thunderstorms that lightning produces nitric acid. Of course, we introduced a high protein grass at St Stanislaus years ago but it has not travelled beyond those gates and into wider use. That grass can be ground and centrifuged for its protein (16% to 18%).

Such are the possibilities for meat, milk products and fish farming without the imports of corn and soya for their protein. These are combined or blended and pelletized to make the feed we need. We do produce broken rice and rice bran, what we need is the protein to add to these. Such is the road to self-reliance and increased competence and self-sufficiency And a Guyana with other strings to its bow. This is part of what re-structuring and diversification must mean and become.

Sugarcane juice is also a hydrocarbon and can be polymerized in the same way as oil, another hydrocarbon. Polymerization took off after more complex oil refining developed about 1942 with thermal and catalytic cracking. Polymers are formed by extending hydrocarbon molecules into longer chains to give us synthetic products like rubber, paints and plastics. Like other technologies, pollution and poisons come in this territory. While sugarcane juice and molasses offer an entry into this kind of manufacture, one has to be wary of polluting the environment by introducing toxic materials into our water, air and food, and the negative penalties of disregarding nature and risking our own health and lives. Negative spending on hospitals, doctors and even public health begs the questions about what we don’t see and what we choose not to see, a kind of wilful blindness that is pervasive and without thought.

There is all of this for our consideration: biomass and climate change, ethanol for cars, etc; fibre products; protein production and malt and so on; nitrogen fixation by leguminous plants including shrubs; polymerization possibilities, both domestic market and export market sugar supplies with invert sugar, creating space for wider entrepreneurship, adding value to raw products through simple and more elaborate processing and manufacturing; openness and transparency for community engagement in the pursuit of livelihoods and so on.

There is also the question of where we get our sugar if we shut down the sugar industry. This serious matter may bite us if we do not give it our strenuous scrutiny for workable answers. We have used money, technology and policy to solve our problems. The money fix is where we throw more and more money at a problem and get nowhere. The techno fix is where we have faith in science and technology to clean up the mess. Policy (systematized laws and rules) is another option that may not address the hazards but produce others that were not predicable, compounding errors. Policy is polished and put in a place making for inflexibility and entrapment, imprisonment in our own construction. This is similar to the three blind men who get hold of different parts of the elephant making each what they independently can without any sense of the whole, juggling parts only.

It would be useful to make our way with as much detailed information as we can find as we choose. Consultation and feedback from all parties is essential to reduce cynicism and proceed with hope and an energized vision. One suggestion will be to have GuySuCo concentrate on processing and refining with ongoing research. It will free its hands to diversify its products as outlined above. Producing the cane will be handed over to cane farmers. Collaboration with them will strengthen the process. We may consider making invert sugar from organic cane. A reduction in sucrose in the sugar with fructose and glucose will meet the needs of an increasingly informed consumer conscious of healthy lifestyles. So liquid invert sugar sold in bottles will have commercial applications as well in products with reduced sugar content.

Yours faithfully

Mahadeo Bissoon

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