Ambassador Derick Heaven is a man for whom this newspaper has the utmost respect and whose grasp of the intricacies of the global sugar industry is undoubted. Importantly, he has been a champion of the cause of reforming the industry, promoting the concept of a sugar cane, rather than a sugar, industry.
It is in that context, therefore, that we perceive Ambassador Heaven's recent remarks about other countries' "envy" of Jamaica's duty-free access to the European Union's sugar market and our need to "put up a fight" to protect it as a statement about short-term tactics rather than being indicative of a longer-term strategy. For as Ambassador Heaven understands, that protection is on its way out.
The problem, however, is that Jamaica has been slow to adjust. Recent developments, however, have reprised some of our confidence that a new paradigm in sugar may still be possible.
Last week, it was reported that Pan Caribbean Sugar Company, the Chinese outfit that bought three of the Government's sugar factories, will spend US$100 million (J$9.3 billion) to build a fully automated sugar factory and refinery at Monymusk, Clarendon. It will have a capacity of 100,000 tonnes of sugar.
This investment, if it takes place, may be indicative of the intent of Pan Caribbean Sugar to rationalise its Jamaican operations, including, perhaps, closing the old and inefficient Bernard Lodge and Frome factories it acquired two years ago.
But whatever is Pan Caribbean's eventual strategy, an injection of that level of capital suggests a long-term commitment to sugar in Jamaica - an industry that has, for decades, oscillated between decline and stagnation. Fifty years ago, Jamaica produced approximately half a million tonnes of sugar. Now, it is struggling to produce 150,000 tonnes.
The other development, which is important to the factory modernisation being undertaken by Pan Caribbean Sugar and the industry's other private owners, is the announcement of a J$3-billion revolving loan scheme to finance sugar cane planting and farm upgrade. The aim is to lift sugar cane output by 800,000 tonnes a year. That will require putting thousands of hectares of land back into sugar cane.
Comparing Jamaica and Brazil
Jamaica now has around 28,000 hectares in sugar, from which it harvests under a million tonnes of sugar cane, at around five tonnes a hectare. It now takes approximately 11 tonnes of cane to produce one tonne of sugar.
In 1975, when 53,000 hectares were under sugar cane, the yield was approximately seven tonnes per hectare, and it took 9.77 tonnes of cane, on average, to produce a tonne of sugar.
In Brazil, the largest sugar cane grower and industry innovator, it requires around seven tonnes of cane to produce a tonne of sugar. Brazil also produces ethanol from sugar cane and is the world leader in this technology. It burns bagasse for energy, which we do a bit of here.
But the most exciting development in the Brazilian industry, being pioneered by the sugar technology research agency, Centro de Tecnologia Canavieira, is a plant that will use enzymes to extract between 30 and 50 per cent more ethanol from sugar cane residue.
Jamaica need not reinvent the sugar-industry wheel or go cap in hand to Europe for protection if we move with the times and see the industry beyond social welfare.
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