THERE ARE SOME who would have you believe that the sugar industry is dead, no longer of importance.
Then there are others who know better and realise that without sugar cane our countryside would be in shambles – an extension of how the CLICO estates in St John currently look, so we must ensure that the industry is rehabilitated.
Interestingly, in some countries farmers are paid to keep the countryside in pristine condition (similar to the appearance of our St George valley). So the government support currently being given to the industry to get it back on its feet after experiencing a barrage of challenges over the years is money well spent.
It’s unfortunate that those who speak disparagingly about the industry couldn’t have witnessed the recent seminar hosted by the Agronomy Research and Variety Testing Unit (ARVTU) . They would’ve seen the outstanding research being done by the committed and competent staff in association with other stakeholders, including the world renowned West Indies Central Sugar Cane Breeding Station (WICSCBS) located on the same compound. The WICSCBS breeds cane varieties with various
characteristics – increased sugar or fibre, suitability to mechanical harvesting, ratooning ability and so on, not only for Barbados, but for other countries as well. The ARVTU tests 25 000 potential new varieties each year to select those most suitable for commercial production. Varieties are tested over a period of about ten years before those selected are released to farmers.
At this time the sugar industry is making every effort to become more efficient and to produce yields of sugar (as opposed to cane) which would make the industry viable in the long term. The approach is to use high sucrose varieties in combination with best growing practices.
It’s recognised, not only here, but in other countries which grow monocrops of sugar cane, that the chemical and biological soil conditions have changed drastically over time. In the past, emphasis was placed on the chemical condition of soils and a“one size fits all” fertiliser recommendation was made for the entire island. This is now being streamlined to be more site specific.
In addition, beneficial micro-organisms are being added to soils so as to make the chemical fertilisers more readily available to cane plants. Initial trials with some of these products have been successful in achieving increased yields. Vinasse, a by-product of the rum industry, is also being tested for its ability to increase sugar yields by improving soil fertility. All this demonstrates a more holistic approach to the sugar cane industry.
Research is presently underway, in association with a British-based company to drastically reduce the multiplication time of selected varieties by a method known as somatic embryogenesis where about 100 000 plants can be produced from one ex-plant.
Although this firm has started working with ARVTU while based in the UK, the logistics of the operation would be enhanced if it were based here. Hopefully, the minister responsible for business facilitation can encourage timely responses from relevant institutions so this goal can be achieved.
Sugar cane in Barbados hasn’t traditionally been affected by a multitude of pests and diseases. However, moth borer has been a problem in the past and has reared its head again. ARVTU has a well-established biological control programme to deal with this pest. More recently, it’s been shown that ratoon stunting disease (RSD), which significantly reduces yield, is widespread.
In response, ARVTU imported a hot water plant to treat infected material so that farmers could establish nurseries of clean plants for further multiplication. This work started in 2014 and is ongoing. There’s also a proposal for additional treatment plants and the possibility for rapid expansion of clean material by somatic embryogenesis to more quickly cope with RSD control.
But of course ARVTU’s excellent research will serve no purpose unless other agencies do what’s necessary to ensure timely payment to farmers so that best agronomic practices can be adopted to achieve the targeted yields. We also hope for better weather conditions in the future.
Finally, for those “doubting Thomases” who think the industry can’t be resurrected, just look at Fisherpond plantation which had fallen into disrepair and which, despite the poor weather conditions, was able to achieve yields as high as 50 tons/acre in some fields last crop season. With commitment and cooperation, nothing is impossible.
• Dr Frances Chandler is a former independent senator. email: email@example.com