23 April 2014

Africa: Sugar Research Fund Aims to Offset End of Quota System

Nearly US$20 million is available for research on sugar to scientists in the member states of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) in a bid to ensure the viability of their sugar industries.

The Sugar Research and Innovation Programme, which is accepting grant proposals until the end of this month, aims to offset some of the potential economic losses posed to smaller sugar exporters such as many of the Caribbean islands.

The losses are expected because of the end of European Union (EU) sugar quotas in 2017 and the rise of big producers such as Brazil, says Jean-Cyril Dagallier, who runs the unit that coordinates the programme. The ACP has firmly opposed the EU's decision to end sugar quotas - a system that sets out how much sugar each of the 19 European producer countries can produce per year and what they can do with the surplus.

ACP countries fear that this change will lower sugar prices and that the ensuing market volatility will harm their small producers, giving a competitive advantage to bigger and therefore more robust producers such as Brazil.

Perhaps more damagingly for the ACP, it appears that the cap on EU sugar production will also be lifted, turning Europe from a net importer to a net exporter.

The sugar research programme's goal is to mitigate against these effects by funding research into more productive sugar crops and into new, potentially more lucrative products that can be made from sugar cane, says Dagallier.

To prevent potential damage to its members' sugar industries, ACP called last month for project proposals as part of the second phase of the research programme (the first phase funded 16 project in 2012 and 2013). The initiative is due to fund 13 projects during 2014 and 2015.

The programme's joint budget of around €11.7 million (nearly US$19.6 million) mostly comes from the EU, but also from Australian Aid, the United States and the ACP countries themselves, according to Dagallier.

He says this programme intends to foster several types of sugar research, including how to improve sugar production with new and more disease-resistant varieties of sugar cane.

Another avenue will be examining how to produce 'green' products, such as cellulose and lignin, from polymers present in the sugar cane, he says.

"ACP countries are at the very beginning of this new path. They have ideas and some of them are already working on pilot projects to produce bioplastics," says Dagallier.

He says that Fiji and Mauritius are better positioned than other smaller ACP states to produce electricity and bioplastics from sugar cane as both started investing in such work several years ago.

"Mauritius is a big sugar cane actor because they have a new sugar policy, new factories and the greatest amount of experts involved in this kind of research," he says.

Fiji is also succeeding in transforming its sugar industry, according to Dagallier, who praises its progress in studying sugar cane genetics and its search for new, more disease-resistant varieties.

But these two countries will need around a decade to start making a return from their investment because they still need new factories and equipment, he adds.

Creating a new variety of sugar cane through cross-breeding can take between 12 and 15 years, so one of the goals set by the governments of the ACP countries is to reduce that period to two to four years by accelerating the cloning process, says Dagallier.

Dagallier hopes that ACP member states will invest heavily in the search for new sugar cane products as he fears that the end of EU sugar quotas will especially hit the smallest ACP countries such as Barbados, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago.

"In the Caribbean, sugar is a big part of their economy. They are small countries, with not a lot of land. If you cut this source of income, you kill these countries," Dagallier warns.

Mauritius will also be seriously affected because it has the biggest quota to import sugar into Europe, he says.

Asha Saumtally Dookun, principal research manager at the Mauritius Sugar Industry Research Institute, says research on bioenergy and biofertilisers produced from sugar cane is likely to pay off for ACP countries in the next three years, but second-generation products, such as biopolymers, will take longer.

"For the crop to become more profitable, it is relevant to build a cluster of other industries around sugar and sugar cane that will bring value addition," she says.

She welcomes the funding available from the research programme, but stresses that the ACP countries will need to hire trained scientists, transfer lab results into practice and develop local and international partnerships to exploit new sugar cane products on an industrial level.

Link to sugar research programme

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