From Fossil fuels to Biofuels – Ensuring Environmental Sustainability

Sugarcane is a very heavily used feedstock for biofuels. It is considered as a very useful biofuel, since it has become the key ingredient to replace fossil fuels. India is the second largest producer of sugarcane after Brazil. The blog touches upon my field experiences of Meerut to showcase how the sugarcane value chain can be made environmentally sustainable so as to win against climate change. Meerut district of Uttar Pradesh scores ace in terms of area, production and yield of sugarcane, thus giving researchers in India to study the region to ensure sustainability of carbon emissions in sugarcane value chain. The concept of value chain remains little hazy due to its various dimensions. Value chain here refers to sugarcane production at the farm-gate level to factory level sugar and ethanol production.

My only concern was whether ethanol production in sustainable in India given that India is a largest producer of sugarcane. The very idea of getting into agriculture excited me as the naive mind thought I will get to live with the villagers during this hectic phase of my career (Of course Master’s Thesis was eerie at that time). To my expectations, I lived the beautiful time of 60s. My grandparent’s stories suddenly started making sense. Villagers don’t talk to you unless you earn them. But once you earn them, no best friend in the city can love you the way they do. To the extent- they treated me as their daughter has come from Delhi by gifting me 100 bucks (Well, that’s a huge amount to be given to a stranger).

Let’s get back to the topic!

The Government of India introduced Ethanol Blended Petrol (EBP) program in 2003 which aimed at promoting biofuel production to ensure sustainability of energy requirements. Later in 2009, the revised mandated standard stated (10%) blending molasses-based ethanol with gasoline. Ethanol is a biofuel made from agricultural products. In India, sugarcane forms the key ingredient in ethanol formation as Ethanol is generated as a co-product of cane processing for sugar production. Besides ethanol, sugarcane is also a source to electricity generation in India. Not excess amount of electricity is generated, however sufficient for sugar mills to run those heavy plants. Interesting, no? Hence, sugarcane was my entire focus of the study to see if the value chain is environmentally sustainable and what is it (factors affecting carbon emissions at the farm-gate level) that can reduce, if not remove the carbon emissions. In other words, to measure the environmental impact of biofuels production.

By sustainable I mean, Carbon emissions- carbon sequestration < 0. To say of a general outcome, I cannot resist to put out the fact that it is all about innovation that India needs to do or think creatively to reduce carbon emissions in order to generate bio-fuels in a sustainable fashion preventing climate change.

Sugarcane value chain

Four ways of reducing carbon emissions for Indian economy, which in my opinion are essential for sustainable production of biofuels can be deduced from the following observations. You will really be surprised to see how innovative farmers in India can be, if I state few of my experiences at field.

  1. Though farmers believe that using more chemical fertilizers will improve their yields (obviously that doesn’t happen), they ignore the environmental circumstances of it.

On the other hand, Komal Singh called the “foolish of all”- as the villagers said so, was using a mixture of oil, wheat and bajra in quantities of 250 grams each mixed with 500 litres of hot water instead of pesticides usually used throughout the district, or even in different states. Also, to cure for diseases like ret rot and shoot borer, he used the mixture of jeera, fennel, ajwain, kali jeeri and red chili (250 grams each) with 500 ml of hot water. To his and villagers’ surprise, Komal Singh produced the maximum yield of sugarcane in his entire life. The idea erupted to him as he saw no insects (aunt specifically) coming nearby ghee spattered while cooking paranthas. The hot oil spattered in the kitchen acted as fence to enter-in.

  1. Another development worth pointing out is, while furrow making is the usual practice in land preparation, there has been innovation in the method of cane farming. Ring pit is a newly developed method of cultivating cane. Only a minority group of farmers were seen as deploying ring-pit method despite of the fact that preparing fields ring-shaped than line and furrows gives maximum yields. Though it is a labour intensive method, but it saves the use of diesel spent in preparing land in other ways, thus reducing carbon emissions.

Ring-Pit method of farming cane

  1. Numerous studies claim sugarcane production to be unsustainable due to its high-water requirement. The problem can be aided if more use of drip-irrigation is practiced using sprinklers. In order to account for that, Laser-assisted precision land leveler is the newly introduced technology brought in certain parts of India to reduce water-requirement. It was ascertained that introduction of LPP has reduced irrigation requirement by about 30%.

Laser-assisted Precision Land Leveler

  1. On the other hand, cane trash is burned in the fields after harvesting not realizing its environmental impact. This is the biggest factor contributing to carbon emissions in the value chain. However, the minority group of farmers, where the government is reachable, farmers spread the trash on their fields on the terms that they are scared of the fines that the government will impose. Otherwise, farmers have an opinion of their fields catching fire if they spread the trash. It is here that farmers require some security, to contribute in sustainable biofuel production.

Thus, for us to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 of affordable and clean energy (like ethanol which is referred to as the clean fuel) stated by United Nations, it becomes our key responsibility to focus on environment friendly or organic ways of producing clean fuels.

To win this battle against climate change, that is, to reduce carbon emissions by moving towards bio-fuels is that, it is essential that farmers practice newer ways of sugarcane production, adopt better technology etc. I believe they require back-up more than awareness. They are scared of experimenting. To have a better tomorrow it is necessary we use resources efficiently. Environmental sustainability can be achieved throughout the chain, if our engines of producing sugarcane (farmers) take initiatives widely, since at further stages of the value chain, only a miniscule amount of emissions are produced, which can be ignored (quantity per kg of Ethanol gets reduced to a negligible figure)!


Author- Shivangi Gupta

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