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B.S.I. roots future of sugar industry in demonstration plots

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Posted: Wednesday, December 18, 2019. 6:05 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Back in October, Belize Sugar Industries Limited/American Sugar Refining (BSI/ASR) director Mac Maclachlan discussed what the industry is doing to anticipate future issues: “…Wе аrе lооkіng аt сlіmаtе ѕmаrt ѕоlutіоnѕ tо ѕоmе оf thе рrоblеmѕ wе hаvе. Wе’vе gоt mајоr рrороѕаlѕ wіth thе Fіvе С’ѕ аt thе mоmеnt, thе Grееn Clіmаtе Fund, tо trу аnd brіng аѕѕіѕtаnсе. Nоw thіѕ іѕ nееdеd аnуwау. Іt’ѕ nееdеd bесаuѕе оf thе іmрасt оf сlіmаtе сhаngе оn а rаіn fеd сrор thаt wе hаvе іn Веlіzе. Ѕо wе nееd tо lооk аt а lоt оf dіffеrеnt ѕоlutіоnѕ. Тhеу аrе nоt gоіng tо соmе оvеrnіght. Wе nееd tо lооk аt wаtеr mаnаgеmеnt. Wе nееd tо dіffеrеnt tуреѕ оf vаrіеtіеѕ thаt аrе gоіng tо реrfоrm bеttеr іn mоrе vоlаtіlе wеаthеr соndіtіоnѕ…”

The producer is backing up its words with two separate but related projects we visited in Orange Walk on Tuesday.

The former is a sort of greenhouse for sugar plants, where B.S.I. is testing out 96 varieties of cane plants to find the nearest possible combination of the perfect sugar cane – resistant to drought and disease while harnessing greater sucrose quality.

B.S.I.’s Research and Development Chief, Adrian Zetina, describes a twelve-year, five-step process in which the varieties, mostly obtained from the research station in Barbados, are tested over and over again and weeding out, literally, those that are not up to the mark.

There’s not really any such thing as the perfect sugar cane, but in the stage 3 plot we visited, 25 varieties are being looked at closely, especially as it relates to drought tolerance.

“What we are doing here is we are evaluating the varieties under drought-tolerant conditions. Any variety that is exiting from this particular experiment is showing some level of drought tolerance…right now, we are dominated by two varieties depending on where you go: in the farming community, we have B79 and B52; on the farm in B.S.I. we have B79 and CP722086. We [have] put all our eggs in one basket; and it’s important to have different varietal options so that we can diversify the varietal compendium that we have,” Zetina explains.

Even in the plot, the differences in the cane are on display; the best of the varieties being tested, Zetina says, are able to thrive in the current conditions and produce a normal growth pattern and high yield compared to the standard B79, with a wider root network to take advantage of the deeper soil moisture.

Depending on the field, the standard B79 shows less vigor: “…we would see a lot of dead leaves, we would see shorter stalks, we would see side shoots coming up,” Zetina stated. At the harvesting and milling stage, he added, farmers should be more selective and find the “millable stalks” which have higher sucrose content. Topography also plays a role, where cane milled in higher lands are subject to drier conditions.

But in the end, says Zetina, more work is needed: either manual loading or meshing the mechanical loader to catch the smaller canes. Data will be collected on the 25 select varieties for their performance in this crop, but they will not be spared: the canes will be harvested and taken to Tower Hill in like fashion to those in the fields. When B.S.I. comes up with all it needs it will distribute the new varieties to farmers, while continuing to test other varieties in each stage of its demonstration plots.

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