India Sci-Tech
Sorghum cultivation can provide ethanol and food, say scientists
Mar 15, 2007 - 10:16:52 AM

Hyderabad, March 15 - An international crop research institute near here has announced plans to introduce cultivation of sweet sorghum in a big way - a rich source of ethanol biofuel - that will not only contribute to the livelihood of poor and marginal dry-land farmers but also provide them food security.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics - said its research on ethanol for biofuel from sweet sorghum and biodiesel from pongamia and jatropha crops, is ensuring energy, livelihood and food security to the dry-land farmers.

In addition, it is also reducing the use of fossil fuel, which in turn can help in mitigating climate change, the institute claimed in a statement Wednesday.

'These crops meet the main needs of the dry-land farmers - they do not require much water, can withstand stress and are not expensive to cultivate,' said ICRISAT media officer S. Gopikrishna Warrier.

ICRISAT scientists have bred sorghum varieties and hybrids in partnership with national agricultural research partners that yield higher amount of sugar-rich juice.

Conventionally, ethanol is produced from sugarcane. Sweet sorghum scores over sugarcane in that it is a crop of the dry-lands, and thus its cultivation can benefit the poor and marginal farmers of these areas, the institute said.

Even though the ethanol yield per unit weight of feedstock is lower for sweet sorghum, the much lower production cost for this crop more than compensates for this loss, and sweet sorghum has a competitive cost advantage.

It costs $0.29 - to produce one litre of ethanol from sweet sorghum, while it costs $0.33 - to produce ethanol from sugarcane.

'Sweet sorghum's benefit is three-fold,' said Dr Belum V.S. Reddy, ICRISAT's principal sorghum breeder. 'It provides the dry-land farmer with grain, fodder for the cattle and an additional source of income through bio-ethanol. Sweet sorghum requires only one seventh of the water that is used up by sugarcane'.

Sweet sorghum has advantage over other biofuel crops in that it yields grain as well as ethanol. Rather than replacing land grown to food, the cultivation can stimulate increased yield of grain and stalk, and also fodder from bagasse.

The institute is working with governments and industry leaders to develop what it called 'partnerships that can result in economic benefit for the poor and marginal farmers of the semi-arid tropics, even while retaining the strong economic competitiveness for the industry'.

'We call this our pro-poor biofuels initiative for the dryland farmers where food security is not compromised,' said ICRISAT director general Dr William Dar.

He added: 'With the fuel prices increasing globally there is a demand for ethanol from sweet sorghum and biodiesel from pongamia and jatropha. We believe that this provides a wonderful opportunity for dryland farmers to get more money from their farms and wastelands.'

Normal grain sorghum is already grown on 11.7 million hectares in dryland Asia and 23.4 m.ha in Africa. Sweet sorghum can fit into this area, and provide an additional income to farmers, say the scientists.

'From an acre of sweet sorghum we can get a minimum of 15 tons of cane,' farmer Rami Reddy who has planted sweet sorghum was quoted saying. 'Rusni distilleries buys this from us at Rs.500 per ton. So a farmers makes a good income from his sweet sorghum field, which is in addition to the 200 to 400 kg of grain that he harvests.'

ICRISAT said it had linked the lab, industry, farmer and the market through the public-private partnership initiative of its Agri-Business Incubator. The research to develop improved varieties was linked with the technology package that entrepreneur A.R. Palaniswamy, managing director of Rusni Distilleries, has developed.

'By partnering with ICRISAT through its Agri-Business Incubator, our distillery at Mohammed Shahpur village - has become the world's first plant to commercially produce ethanol from sweet sorghum,' claimed Palaniswamy. 'We have linked with farmers, to whom we are supplying seeds of sweet sorghum varieties, and buying back their produce.'

Ethanol can be blended with petrol - to save the use of fossil fuels, which cause greenhouse gas emissions resulting in climate change. According to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, India can save nearly 80 million litres of petrol annually if it is blended with alcohol by 10 percent.

Ethanol is considered a clean-burning fuel with a high octane rating. In addition to the Rusni project in India, ICRISAT has signed agreements with five private companies in the Philippines to form a sweet sorghum for ethanol consortium.

According to calculations made by Rusni Distilleries, a 40 kiloliter-per-day ethanol from sweet sorghum plant in India can benefit 5,000 farmers and provide 40,000 man-days of labour per year.

By planting sweet sorghum instead of grain sorghum, dry-land farmers can get an additional income of $40 - per hectare per crop, it is claimed.

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