Sweet Sorghum: an attractive alternate feedstock for Bio-Ethanol

The cultivation of Sweet Sorghum in an energy starved country like India, has great potential of improving both income and lifestyle of farming communities. Sweet Sorghum is a drought tolerant crop and has the potential to be used as food, feedstock and fodder.   

Globally, Sugarcane and corn are used as feedstock to produce Bio-Ethanol, which is a bio-fuel used for blending with petrol, to reduce the overall cost of fuel. In India, the feedstock requirement is met almost entirely by molasses, which is a by-product of sugarcane. Sugarcane production is strongly influenced by government defined Minimum Price Support (MSP) policy, as it is a primary feedstock for sugar processing. However, Sweet Sorghum is an attractive alternate to sugarcane on several counts and has the potential to be a more profitable alternate. 

Several studies carried out indicate that India has natural potential for producing Bio-Ethanol, which is an additive to Petroleum. The use of Ethanol can significantly bring down the cost of fuel while retaining all the properties of fuel. The current National Policy on Biofuels permits blending of 10% and targets a 20% blending of Bio-diesel and Bio-Ethanol, by 2017. 

The Sweet Sorghum advantage 

Sweet Sorghum is a rainfall independent cash crop which can be harnessed to address need for Fuel, Grain and multiple uses as under: 

Sorghum types:

  • Grain
  • Dual (grain & fodder)
  • Sweet stalk ((fuel, food, feed and fodder)
  • Sweet sorghum – a bio ethanol feedstock

There is a strong case for active promotion and cultivation of Sweet Sorghum in India which could significantly increase the per capita income of farmers, while reducing the dependence on rain fed and groundwater based irrigation. Further advantage is that the stalk is used as feedstock for bio-ethanol production, while the grains are available to be sold in the market. This ensures that additional agricultural land need not be diverted for cultivation to meet industrial demand. 

Sweet Sorghum vs Sugarcane

Sweet Sorghum requires little water and can sustain in semi-arid and arid conditions. It grows in 4 months as compared to 12-16 months for sugarcane. Which means that you can get 2 crops per year. The water requirement is just 8000 m3 per hectare while sugarcane requires 36,000 m3 per hectare. (Source:Energy Policy,Assessing Viability of Bio-ethanol Production from Sweet Sorghum, G.Basavaraj et al.) 

To take advantage of the opportunity, the following is required: 

  • Setting up of ethanol distillation factory in 50 km radius of Sweet Sorghum growing areas.
  • Promote cultivation of sweet sorghum on contract farming basis.
  • Establish laboratory for high yielding seed development and distribution to farmers in the target area.
  • Promote holistic community development in the target area.
  • Once the business model is successfully demonstrated, scale up the project and take it to all parts of India where the soil and climatic conditions support cultivation of Sweet Sorghum.

The above can be achieved with active participation and support from the government, NGOs and local farming co-operatives. 

There is significant scope for improvement in per capita cultivation, as well as, production of bio-ethanol, by improving technology processes. With optimization of productivity the net income of farmer’s can rise significantly. 

Government support essential 

With support from the government, a holistic business model could be developed on a PPP basis. The government of India is proactively promoting private sector investment in agriculture, and development of bio-fuels, knowledge transfer and financial support to small, medium and large farmers. 

Its time India looked at all possible alternate crops to maximize productivity along with improving farmer’s per capita income.