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Credit: Claudio Contreras.
Sugarcane's New Promises
By Patricia Grogg

Cuban scientists are saying that sugarcane is a raw material with as much potential as petroleum. And they are developing medications, preservatives, resins and plastics from this sweet crop.

HAVANA, (Tierramérica).- Cuba is stepping up efforts to make use of sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) derivatives for animal and human medications at a time when the island's sugar industry is undergoing restructuring due to the low sugar prices on the international market.

The conversion policy for this sector, launched two years ago, includes a push for utilization of sugarcane derivatives in the food, chemical, pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

Local experts are unanimous in touting ''alternative'' uses for sugarcane, to make sweets and alcohol, animal feed, resins, preservatives, plastics and manufactured products like paper or furniture.

''In these times of production and commercialization (of sugar) it is not enough to produce with high quality and low costs. It is essential to head towards broad diversification,'' Luis Gálvez, director of the Havana-based ICIDCA, the Cuban sugarcane research institute, told Tierramérica.

Founded more than 40 years ago, ICIDCA is at the forefront of Cuban technological endeavors to take full advantage of this crop, one that is deeply linked with the island's history and culture.

ICIDCA research covers agriculture, animal feed and human food, as well as environmental, biotech and pharmacological studies.

Among the novelties in the pharmaceutical line are extracts of cane wax and organic acids.

''In sugarcane derivatives there is ongoing potential in the technological knowledge achieved by Cuba,'' said Gálvez, adding that through chemical and biotechnology, sugarcane can generate as wide a variety of products as petrochemicals produce.

Of the surprising variety of sugarcane derivatives, the product that achieved perhaps the greatest international popularity in the late 20th century was policosanol, or PPG, discovered and developed in Cuban laboratories.

PPG is applauded as a regulator of the metabolism for fats, including cholesterol, and as a food supplement for people in situations of great physical exertion.

This ''natural'' medication does not have harmful side effects and is thought to enhance sexual function. The product has customers in Europe and Australia, among other points of the globe, and is sought by many of the tourists visiting this socialist-run island.

The Dalmer labs of Havana, where PPG is produced, have spent years searching for other natural derivatives of Cuban plants, and particularly of sugarcane.

Just a few weeks ago, Cuban experts announced a new family of antibiotics for treating animals. These drugs were produced from sugarcane by the Chemical Bioactives Center at the Central University of Las Villas, in Santa Clara, 300 km east of the capital.

The research center uses furfural, from sugarcane waste, to produce what is known as G-1, a strong adversary against bacteria and fungus that were resistant to previously known antibiotics.

The product is used as a veterinary drug to treat diseases in nine animal species, according to the experts.

The center has developed new active drug ingredients from furfural for use in agricultural biotech and in human and animal medicine.

Also in Cuba, scientists have utilized sugarcane pulp to produce anti-diarrhea drugs Ligmed-A and Ligmed-H, for animals and humans, respectively.

The first has a powerful anti-microbe effect and a great capacity to absorb toxins and pathogenic microbes in the digestive tract of pigs.

Its use for livestock is made simple by the fact that it does not have a strong taste or smell, nor does it have adverse side effects.

Ligmed-H has been used successfully in hospitals for digestive illnesses, and even as a palliative for symptoms of colon cancer.

For decades, Cuba invested heavily in infrastructure and research for a sector that focused mostly on sugar production. The aim now is to take greatest advantage of that investment, say officials.

Among the projects under way is the creation of the Development Center for Industrial Fermentation and Nutrition, which will have three pilot plants for semi-commercial production of biotech derivatives of sugarcane.

The Center has the financial support of the United Nations Development Program and implementation support from the U.N. Industrial Development Organization.

The two years of restructuring of the island's sugar sector has included the closing of 70 mills, leaving 71 in operation.

In general, the objective of the conversion is to reduce production costs and improve competition, develop sustainable agriculture and increase food production, the Cuban officials said at the time.

Sugar has been the center of the Caribbean nation's economic, social and cultural development for centuries, and -- until the restructuring -- the sector employed 2.5 million people.

* Patricia Grogg is an IPS correspondent.

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