HIGH-priced and limited crop inputs such as fertilisers and irrigation, low crop price and late payments are some of the snags for decreasing area under sugarcane cultivation in the country.
The government and other related departments have tried to facilitate high net returns to growers but without much success and area under sugarcane has shrunk to 999,000 hectares now from 1241,000 hectares since 2006-07.
Owing to climate change that is affecting sugarcane output, sugar beet can be an alternative cum supplement to cane to increase sugar production.
Beet is basically a crop of temperate origin but after decade’s effort, cultivars for tropical and sub-tropical have been developed. Tropical sugar beet cultivars are grown in winter unlike summer crops in temperate areas.
The crop has the capacity to produce the same amount of sugar within short duration even in half of the time using one-third of water required for sugarcane. Shorter crop duration also saves labour cost and expenditure on plant protection measures.
Sugar beet can grow equally better in marginal saline soils due to its halophytic nature. Even Na+ fertiliser is recommended in sugar beet cultivation where already available Na+ is less in soil. Sugar beet can also be used for reclamation of saline-sodic and sodic soils because it accumulates considerable amount of Na+ in its leaves and helps in its removal from salt-affected fields.
Growing conditions are similar to winter crops with 5-10 ºC temperature for its germination and relatively high temperature during vegetative growth with optimal of 25-30ºC. Sugar beet can also tolerate high temperature up to 40 ºC but prolonged exposure to high temperature can result in yield losses.
Beet sugar contents also vary with crop duration and optimising cultivars with sowing date in different areas is of prodigious significance. In 2007, SMEDA in collaboration with Strube-Dieckmann (Germany) found some districts of Punjab and Sindh suitable for sugar beet production. Climate of lower Sindh is suitable to grow sugar beet on commercial scale.
Tropical sugar beet cultivars have high adaptability in these areas with similar yield potential as in temperate areas.
However basic crop production technologies needs to be developed under local conditions in these areas.
Germplasm suitability under identical locations needs testing for optimisation and developing cultivars under local conditions. Proper nutrient management practices such as potassium and nitrogen is of great importance for beet-maturity time and sucrose concentration to harvest good quality beet.
However, under the current energy crisis, problems can be faced during sugar beet processing which demands high energy and therefore cost of sugar production can increase by Rs4/kg. But production of ethanol and livestock feed as byproducts from sugar beet can compensate the processing cost.
The second problem can be of quick disposal of sugar beet to avoid its decomposition owing to high temperature at the time of harvesting. The time of sowing and harvesting can be modified by selecting suitable cultivars and proper nutrient management. Installation of beet processing and sugar production units near beet growing areas can minimise this loss.
Some sugar industrialists are now showing interest in production of beet sugar. Talks are being held between them and the University of Agriculture to see the possibilities of sugar beet cultivation in various districts of Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan.
International seed companies are also working to optimise their cultivars in various districts of Pakistan.
Now is the appropriate time to promote sugar beet cultivation on a large scale to avoid looming sugar crisis under water shortage. Despite continuing water shortage, the government has not taken any step in this direction.