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Sugarcane—A Giant Among Grasses

Sugarcane—A Giant Among Grasses

 Sugarcane—A Giant Among Grasses


WHAT would we do without sugar? It would be an exaggeration to say that the world would come to a stop—but many a diet would need to be changed dramatically if sugar were to disappear. Yes, today in most parts of the world, sugar intake has become part of daily life, making sugar production a worldwide industry.

Millions of people, from Cuba to India and from Brazil to Africa, grow and harvest sugarcane. In fact, at one time sugar production reigned supreme as the world’s largest and most lucrative industry. It could be said that sugarcane has molded the world in a way that few other plants have.

Would you like to learn more about this remarkable plant? Then join us on a visit to a region in Queensland, Australia, where sugarcane is grown. Although this area is only a modest cane producer, efficient farming and processing methods have made it one of the world’s leading exporters of raw sugar.

A Visit to Sugarcane Country

The air is hot and humid. The tropical sun beats down on a field of mature sugarcane. A large machine resembling a wheat harvester is slowly moving through the tall crop of sugarcane, chopping the stalks in the harvesting process and depositing the cut cane into a trailer moving alongside. Sugar juice soon oozes from the severed cane, and a sweet, musty smell wafts through the air. The precious juice from this remarkable grass has begun its journey from the field to the sugar bowl on your table.

Not so long ago, the cane was cut laboriously by hand here in Australia as it still is in many countries where sugarcane is harvested. Imagine the scene. Workers are cutting cane by hand. A row of sweating cane cutters slowly advance through the field of sugarcane. With almost military precision, the workers gather clusters of upright cane stalks with one arm and then pull them firmly to one side to expose their common base. Swish, chop! Swish, chop! With muscular swings, workers wielding machetes sever the stalks close to the ground. Tossing them aside into neat rows, they move on to the next stool, or cluster, of cane. Worldwide, this situation is gradually changing, as more and more countries are now in the process of mechanization.

Australia’s sugarcane country consists primarily of a coastal strip about 1,300 miles [2,100 km]  long that, for the most part, runs parallel to the famous Great Barrier Reef. (See the article “A Visit to the Great Barrier Reef,” in the June 8, 1991, issue of Awake!) The year-round warm, humid climate here allows sugarcane to thrive, and about 6,500 growers live mainly on small family farms that lie scattered along the coast like bunches of grapes on a vine.

After a long drive, we see in the distance the sugar city of Bundaberg, on Queensland’s central coast. As we descend a small hill, a breathtaking panorama greets us—as far as the eye can see is a sea of waving sugarcane! And what variety in color! The various fields of cane are at different stages of maturity, so they form a patchwork mosaic in vivid tones of green and gold, with small patches of chocolate-brown in areas that have remained fallow this year or have recently been cleared.

July is the coolest month of the year, and the harvesting and crushing season has just begun. This will continue until December as the crop matures in various stages. Now we are eager to visit a sugar mill to see what happens to the harvested sugarcane. But it is suggested that before we do that, we learn something of sugarcane itself. So we decide to make our first stop at a sugar experiment station set up in the region. Here scientists develop new cane varieties and do research to improve sugarcane agriculture and production.

Its Origins and Cultivation

At the sugar research station, an obliging agronomist is happy to teach us something about sugarcane itself and explain how it is grown. Originally found in the rain forests of Southeast Asia and New Guinea, sugarcane is a giant of the grass family, which includes members as varied as lawn grass, cereal grains, and woody bamboos. All these plants manufacture sugar in their leaves through the process of photosynthesis. Yet, sugarcane differs in that it does so in prodigious amounts and then stores the sugar as sweet juice in its fibrous stalks.

Sugarcane cultivation was widely known in ancient India. There, in 327 B.C.E., scribes in Alexander the Great’s invading armies noted that the inhabitants “chewed a marvelous reed, which produced a kind of honey without any help from bees.” As world exploration and development gathered momentum during the 15th century, sugarcane production spread like wildfire. Today cane varieties number into the thousands, and over 80 countries contribute to an annual crop of about one billion tons.

In most parts of the world, planting is a very labor-intensive operation. Mature  sugarcane stalks are cut in lengths of about 16 inches [40 cm] and are planted in furrows about 5 feet [1.5 m] apart. Each cutting, or set, grows a stool of about 8 to 12 cane stalks, which mature over a period of between 12 and 16 months. Walking through a dense field of mature cane can be an eerie experience. Cane stalks and thick foliage tower to a height of up to 13 feet [4 m]. Could that rustling over there be just the wind, or is it perhaps a snake or a rodent? Just in case, perhaps it is time to retreat to the safety of open ground!

Research is being done to find ways to counter cane pests and diseases. Many of these efforts have met with some success, although not all. For example, in 1935, in an effort to eradicate the troublesome cane beetle, authorities introduced the Hawaiian cane toad into northern Queensland. Unfortunately, the cane toad preferred other abundant fare to cane beetles, bred prolifically, and has itself become a major pest throughout northeastern Australia.

You Burn Before Harvesting?

Later, after night falls, we watch in amazement as a local farmer sets fire to his mature crop of cane. Within seconds the small field becomes a major conflagration with flames leaping high into the night sky. Burning the cane helps remove unwanted leaves and other matter that may impede harvesting and milling operations. In recent times, however, there has been a growing trend to harvest without the spectacular preburn. This method is called green cane harvesting. Not only does it improve the sugar yield but it also leaves behind a protective mulch blanket on the ground, which, in turn, is helpful in combating soil erosion and weeds.

Although in many countries where sugarcane is grown today the crop is still harvested by hand, more countries are now harvesting with huge cane-cutting machines. These behemoths carve their way through tall stands of sugarcane, topping and tailing the stalks and then automatically cutting them into short billets, or pieces, ready for processing at the mill. While one cane cutter may harvest an average of 5 tons of cane per day using the laborious hand-cutting method, cane-cutting machines can process up  to 300 tons per day with ease. Fields may be cut annually for several years before the sugar yield drops and the plants need to be replaced.

Once the cane is cut, speed in handling is essential, for the sugar in harvested cane deteriorates rapidly. To facilitate quick transport to the mills, about 2,500 miles [4,100 kilometers] of narrow-gauge tram lines service cane-growing areas in Queensland. The miniature locomotives that travel these lines are a colorful sight as they traverse the countryside, trailing dozens of wagons filled to the brim with sugarcane.

Through the Mill

Touring a sugar mill is an interesting experience. First to greet the eyes are rows of cane wagons waiting to be emptied. Huge shredders and rollers pulverize the cane, squeezing the sugar juice from the fiber. The leftover fiber, or bagasse, is dried and used as fuel to power the entire mill. Excess amounts are also sold to paper and building-material manufacturers for use in their products.

The impurities in the sugar juice are then removed, leaving a clarified liquor. The reclaimed impurities, called mud, are used in fertilizer. Another by-product, molasses, is used as stock food or as a raw material in the distillation of rum and industrial alcohol. The versatility of sugarcane and the efficiency of the milling process are certainly impressive.

The liquor is then concentrated into a syrup by boiling off excess water, and it is seeded with tiny sugar crystals. These crystals grow until they reach the required size. They are then removed from the mixture and dried. The result is raw brown sugar. Further refining will convert this raw sugar into the familiar refined white sugar found by many on their meal table.

Perhaps your tea or coffee will taste a little sweeter after this fascinating and enlightening tour of sugarcane country. Of course, if you are diabetic, then you may have to forgo sugar and perhaps use a substitute.

Certainly, we have been impressed with the versatility and ingenuity of the One who designed and then caused to grow in such profusion this amazing plant, sugarcane—truly a giant among grasses!

[Box on page 22]

Is It Beet or Cane?

Sugar is produced from two major world crops. Sugarcane is mainly grown in tropical areas and accounts for at least 65 percent of the world’s sugar production. The remaining 35 percent is extracted from sugar beets, which are grown in colder climates, such as Eastern and Western Europe and North America. The sugars are chemically identical.

[Picture on page 23]

Sugarcane being burned off before harvesting

[Picture on page 23]

Mechanical sugar harvester. The tractor is pulling a trailer

[Picture Credit Line on page 21]

All pictures on pages 21-4: Queensland Sugar Corporation