Washington: The hardy sweet sorghum plant could be the miracle crop that provides cheap animal feed and fuel without straining the world’s food supply or harming the environment, said scientists working on a pilot farming project in India.
“We consider sweet sorghum an ideal ‘smart crop’ because it produces food as well as fuel,” William Dar, director general of the non-profit International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat) said in a statement.
Sweet sorghum (Sorghum bicolour) is the world’s fifth largest grain crop after rice, corn, wheat and barley.
It grows in dry conditions, tolerates heat, salt and waterlogging, making it an ideal crop for semi-arid areas where many of the world’s poor live, Icrisat agronomist Mark Winslow said in an interview.
The plant grows to a height of 2.6-4m and looks like corn. Its stalks are crushed yielding sweet juice that is fermented and distilled to obtain bioethanol, a clean burning fuel with a high octane rating.
It has high positive energy balance, producing about eight units of energy for every unit of energy invested in its cultivation and production, roughly equivalent to sugar cane and about four times greater than the energy produced by corn.
Sweet sorghum requires little or no irrigation, limiting the use of fuel-burning water pumps that emit carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas contributing to climate change, Winslow said. “With proper management, smallholder farmers can improve their incomes by 20% compared with alternative crops in dry areas in India,” said Dar. In partnership with Rusni Distilleries and some 791 farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Icrisat helped to build and operate the world’s first commercial bioethanol plant, which began operations in June.
Sweet sorghum in India costs $1.74 (Rs74.64) to produce a gallon (3.78 litres) of ethanol, compared with $2.19 for sugar cane and $2.12 for corn, the research institute said. Similar public-private-farmer partnership projects are also under way in the Philippines, Mexico, Mozambique and Kenya, as countries search for alternative fuels, India-based Icrisat added. The US and European Union are also very interested in making biofuel from sweet sorghum, Winslow said. The US department of agriculture is sponsoring an international conference in Houston, Texas, in August to examine the plant’s potential.
In addition to ethanol, “I think (sorghum) is going to be one of the two big crops in the tropics” that supply biofuel such as ethanol, the demand for which “far exceeds the supply” on the world market, Winslow said. “It’s a win-win situation for developing nations since it allows them to save money they now spend on oil imports and invest it in sweet sorghum-ethanol production in dry areas.”