Sweet Experiment with Organic Sugar
By Alejandro Sciscioli
Paraguay is the leading exporter of sugar produced without agrochemicals, a business that is forecast to move 26 million dollars in 2005.
ASUNCION, (Tierramérica).- In 1994 a Paraguayan sugar company decided to try to fill the demands of niche markets abroad for sugar produced without agrochemicals. Eleven years later, Paraguay is the world's leading producer and exporter of this organic product.
Since the timid beginnings of Azucarera Censi & Pirotta in the organic sugar business, a number of companies have followed suit, and with it there has been an increase in the number of hectares of organic sugar cultivated, tons produced, workers hired and revenues for this impoverished South American nation.
Ironically, the pioneering sugar mill has returned to producing conventional non-organic sugar, but seven companies produce the organic version of the sweet stuff, concentrated in the heart of Paraguay's sugarcane region, the southeastern department of Guairá.
Paraguay was the first country to engage in industrial-scale organic sugar production. Then came Cuba, Colombia and Brazil, but the decline in international sugar prices made the business less attractive, prompting Cuba and Colombia to abandon the effort, and a sharp decline in Brazil's organic sugar production.
The organic sugar industry ''is a way to compete on the international markets against the cheap sugar that Brazil produces,'' said Raúl Hoeckle, president of Azpa, Paraguay's biggest sugar mill, and the second company to turn to organic production, in 1999.
The business remains ''tempting,'' despite the costs and the international organic certification requirements, he told Tierramérica.
A ton of organic sugar fetches some 330 dollars on the international market, while conventionally produced sugar sells for about 260 dollars a ton.
Furthermore, Hoeckle underscored the importance of the environmental benefits, and the fact that cycle of sugarcane harvesting and sugar production requires a great number of workers, ''which helps provide employment to rural residents.''
In the first year of organic sugar production, the total output was 379 tons. Since then there has been a sustained increase (except 2001, a year of droughts and freezes), reaching 40,000 tons in 2004, translating into 20 million dollars in exports.
For 2005, production is expected to be 20 percent more than last year, and export revenues to reach 26 million dollars.
The organic sugar buyers' requirements have increased year by year. Today they demand independent certifications of compliance with the principles of organic farming and with production regulations. Requirements vary from country to country.
Azpa has 14 certifications of different types, including the U.S. QAI -- Quality Assurance International -- for organic products.
It also began a food security program based on the standards of the American Institute of Baking, which includes risk analysis and critical point control, best practices for manufacturing and pest control.
The top buyers of Paraguay's organic sugar are the United States, Germany, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore.
According to a document from the Paraguayan Sugar Center, to qualify for organic farming, the land needs to be free of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, growth regulators, and other such substances for three years.
Furthermore, a five-year history of how the land has been used is needed.
Cultivation practices are not regulated, but the sector's leaders advocate preserving earthworms and other organisms in the soil, and protecting the richness of the soil in general.
Crop rotation is permitted as long as no agrochemicals are used, and although conventional seeds are allowed, experts recommend organically produced seeds.
''From one well-managed hectare can come 70,000 tons of organic sugarcane -- the same as one conventionally grown hectare,'' Jorge Bonzi, an agronomist specializing in sugar production, said in a Tierramérica interview.
Conventional sugar production uses chemical fertilizers at the moment of plowing. Then, the rows are covered and herbicides are applied to prevent weed growth, he explained.
For organic sugar, natural fertilizer is used, such as manure, as well as a byproduct from organic sugarcane processing, known as 'torta de filtro', or filter cake, Bonzi said.
Weed control is done by hand, as is the cutting of sugarcane for transport to the mill. This is where organic sugar production has greater social value, because of the great number of workers needed.
The average workforce is 6.5 people per hectare for a process that lasts all year long, and entails weeding, cutting, cleaning up the leaves after harvest, application of organic fertilizer, among other duties.
Another aspect that Bonzi underscored is that 90 percent of the farmers are involved in small independent rural operations who later sell their yields to the sugar mills. ''In Brazil, in contrast, all organic production belongs to the companies.''
* Alejandro Sciscioli is a Tierramérica contributor.