Ethanol from sweet sorghum does not compromise food security

As fears regarding the use of food crops for alternative fuel production on food security for the poor, particularly in Africa, prevail, scientists say that sweet sorghum provides a solution.

The pioneering project to produce ethanol from sweet sorghum, being implemented jointly by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and Rusni Distilleries, has achieved a significant milestone with the first batch of ethanol flowing out of the distillery at Mohammed Shapur village in Andhra Pradesh, India.

Dr William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT, and Mr A R Palaniswamy, Managing Director of Rusni Distilleries, look at the first batch of ethanol produced. The ethanol produced at the distillery marks a major success in the public-private partnership project. The project generates ethanol as a biofuel from the sugar-rich juice extracted from sweet sorghum stalks. This provides the resource-poor farmers of the drylands with a source of additional income even while they do not lose out on food security.

According to Dr William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT, the production of ethanol has turned the dream of ICRISAT and Rusni Distilleries into a sweet reality. Sweet sorghum ethanol does not compromise food security since the farmers can continue to use the grain for food.

"The project successfully blends ICRISAT's scientific capability in developing sweet sorghum varieties with higher juice availability with the entrepreneurial capability of Rusni Distilleries. This we have linked with the dryland farmers through the grass-roots networking strength our other partner Aakrithi Agricultural Associates of India (AAI)," added Dr Dar.

Though the Rusni Distilleries plant introduced the pioneering technology to prepare ethanol from sweet sorghum, it has been designed to be able to use multiple feedstocks. "We can produce ethanol from sugarcane juice or from any grain including sorghum and corn grains that farmers have in excess after meeting their needs," said Mr AR Palaniswamy, Managing Director of Rusni Distilleries. "This ensures that we run the plant and provide employment to farmers throughout the year."

ICRISAT's crop breeding successes with sweet sorghum will soon help overcome the problem of getting sweet sorghum throughout the year for the distillery. With the sorghum breeders at the Institute having developed hybrids that can be planted at any time of the year, the limitation of planting only during the crop season has been overcome.

With the monsoons approaching Peninsular India and the sowing having started for the Kharif (rainy) season, ICRISAT, Rusni Distilleries and AAI have launched a campaign with the dryland farmers of Andhra Pradesh, encouraging and helping them to plant sweet sorghum.

According to Mr G Subba Rao, Director of AAI, the aim is to cover at least 4000 acres during this Kharif season. The farmers have been identified in village clusters, and seeds of improved varieties have been distributed to them. A mechanism has also been designed to collect sweet sorghum stalks from the farmers, have them crushed at the cluster centers and the syrup transported to Rusni Distilleries.

A farm family in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, India, sow the seeds of sweet sorghum in their fields before the onset of the monsoon.ICRISAT is leading a consortium of partners for developing sweet sorghum as a source of biofuel under the National Agricultural Innovation Program of the Government of India. Under this project, ICRISAT and partners are developing a proposal to strengthen molecular research and breeding of sweet sorghum, and strengthen linkages between the farmers and Rusni Distilleries.

Through its ethanol from sweet sorghum project, ICRISAT has been promoting the idea of generating bio-fuel without compromising on food production. "Our emphasis with the sweet sorghum project is that ethanol is produced from the sweet juice available in the stalk of the crop plant, unlike in the use of grains in other plants. The farmers will continue to use the sorghum grain, while they can earn an additional income from selling the juice," said Dr Belum VS Reddy, ICRISAT's Principal Sorghum Breeder. ICRISAT's emphasis counters the global debate against biofuels, which are said to be taking away food crop agricultural lands for growing biofuel crops. Already countries are taking policy decisions that will prevent conversion of land available for food crops for growing biofuel crops. 

The Xinhua News Agency reported that the Chinese Government has asked biofuel crop growers to switch to crops such as sweet sorghum for their projects. The Philippine Government has also decided not to use corn for bioethanol production and has invested in research and development of other crops such as sweet sorghum and cassava for this purpose.

Sweet sorghum has other benefits over sugarcane and maize as feedstock for ethanol production. It requires only one half of the water required to grow maize and around one eighth of the water required to grow sugarcane; and has the least cost of cultivation which is around one fifth of the cost for growing sugarcane.

Sweet sorghum is also a carbon neutral crop, according to the Latin American Thematic Network on Bioenergy (LAMNET). This means that the amount of carbon dioxide that sweet sorghum fixes during its growing period is equal to the amount it emits during crop growth, conversion to ethanol and combustion of ethanol.

The first batch of ethanol produced at Rusni Distilleries makes available the crop and technology necessary to launch a global pro-poor biofuel revolution. - CGIAR


August 2010