Enhancing “Bioindustries” Capability to Mitigate Risks on Cane and Sugar

Currently, the situation of cane and sugar is rather gloomy due to fluctuating market prices according to India’s export policy apart from drought. Such situation certainly affects many countries where sugar is manufactured and exported, one of which includes Thailand.

Following an information about sugar production from year 2018/19, 131 million tons of cane were harvested, resulting in a total of 14.6 million tons of sugar. The amount implies the highly stable condition of the sugar industry which requires a couple of years to rise again.

Dr. Pipat Weerathaworn, A Member of The Committee of TSSCT and An Agricultural Professional in NRCT

As a result, to survive the situation, Thailand needs to find a solution by focusing on transforming such agricultural products as cane and sugar into various biological products. In particular, the trend on bioplastic is currently à la mode thanks to environmental conservation concerns, use of less non-degradable plastic is promoted.

In terms of a person to provide answers and information on Thailand’s bioindustries and interesting bioplastic market, Sugar Asia is honored to have a talk with Dr. Pipat Weerathaworn, one of the most renowned academics in the area of cane and sugar of Thailand. The committee member of Thai Society of Sugar and Cane Technologists (TSSCT), the agricultural expert of National Research Council of Thailand (NRCT) as well as the honorary president of the Thai Bio-plastics Industry Association (TBIA) and the project advisor of Plastic Institute of Thailand and The National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC), Dr. Pipat proposed an idea on Thailand’s bio-economy, which was included in the national agenda of 2013.

- Capability of “Thai bioindustries” in comparison with “Asian bioindustries”

Prior to talking about comparison between Thai and Asian bioindustries, Dr. Pipat defined, “Bio-economy”, as economic development that emphasizes on using and transforming biomass out of agricultural products and agricultural waste for the sake of the most effective natural resource use. Therefore, “Thai bioindustries” are industries using agricultural products and/or agricultural waste as renewable feedstock to manufacture other products. Currently, our world’s economy is mobilized by fossil oil and petrochemical goods that can finally be depleted in the future.

According to Dr. Pipat, Thailand produces and exports many agricultural products to the world, such as rice, cassava, cane and sugar. “Bioindustries” are becoming the world business and keep growing higher, especially bioplastic, 150,000 tons of which are produced in the US every year. There, raw materials come from corn sugar.

Recently, Thailand has a newly launched bioplastic factory in Rayong where 75,000 tons of products are manufactured out of cane sugar. The country is ranked the second for sugar export in the world because over 10 million tons of sugar are exported from here whereas the highest number comes from Brazil. In other words, in terms of “bioindustries” context, Thailand can become “A Bio-Industrial Hub of Asia” more than other neighboring countries thanks to its agricultural strength.

- Competitiveness capability in bioplastic market between Thailand and other Asian countries

Dr. Pipat explains about bioplastic industries, of which sugar from cane or corn is a raw material. He said that 50-60% of cane and corn served as a capital of all production. As a result, feedstock availability and location is advantageous of investment.

Besides, Thailand has up to 4,000 factories of products and packaging made of plastic. The factories are able to manufacture other goods of higher value for other countries, particularly those in Europe, as well.

Apart from the above-mentioned factors, Dr. Pipat added that Thai transport systems and other facilities are as good as other countries’ in Asia, including policy on bioeconomic industries implemented in the country which enables it to become more advanced than other countries in the same region.

Promoting “biotechnology” while highlighting research capacity for Thai biomass products

Besides bioplastic industries, Dr. Pipat added that Thailand was capable for other biomass products, especially gasohol and biodiesel (Both of them are categorized as “BIO-FUEL”), which are already under operation. Soon, Thailand is supposed to produce more of them to add more value to agricultural products. Instead of exporting basic agricultural ones like rice, flour or sugar, the country must transform them into advanced forms of products like functional food and bio-medical goods.

At this point, Dr. Pipat evaluates the fact that “we must use advanced research and technology as the major research on “Bio-technology”. It involves various sciences, namely biotechnology on agriculture and medicine,”

Frankly speaking, Dr. Pipat informes that the research in this area was only at the lab scale and Thai government and private companies should provide support and invest on up-scaling, pilot scale and pre-marketing scale researches. Each of them has various production capacity or investment depending on types of products. Therefore, Thailand at present has to find joint-investors available in terms of technology to initially learn and start the business.

Promoting demand of using biomass products in Thailand and increasing use of biomass products

Recently, the government has approved 125% tax measures for use of bioplastics. However, they lack clear codes of conduct and people do not have proper knowledge on the issue. Dr. Pipat then presents the following issues of interest:

1. Every bio-product is only an alternative for consumers. At present, the product is unable to replace all conventional ones in terms of both quality and prices.

2. Most of bio-products are expensive due to raw materials’ costs. The raw materials are natural but can be reproduced, unlike oil products that may be depleted in the future.

3. Since raw materials are agricultural, they affect environment less than fossil oil. However, it depends on production systems and overall management.

4. The Thai market of bio-products is as small as organic foods market, but it tends to grow gradually in case people have more knowledge and understanding on the future environmental problem.

5. The government may help promote demand by implementing policy on procurement of bio-products at the rates of between 30 and 50% despite expensive prices. In terms of civil societies, the government should provide tax support measures between 3 and 5 years.

“Capacity of bioplastic market in Asia-Pacific towards leadership on European market within the next 5 years”

Sources said that the US was the biggest producers of bioplastic grains whereas China, and Taiwan exported them in the form of packagings for single uses mainly in food and beverage industries. 75% of people in EU such as Germany and the Netherlands are pleased to pay more for environmentally-friendly products.

Regarding the latest Asia-Pacific’s market of bioplastics, the product has not been much favored. Nevertheless, concerns on environmental problems encourage public measures, hence less use of plastic products and more preference to biodegradable ones.

“It is possible that, due to the growth of economy in Asia-Pacific which is higher than that of Europe and environmental problems caused by plastic use, we found that countries of Asia and the Pacific lacked effective waste management system. Our sea and ocean are mostly contaminated with plastic waste until it becomes grave environmental problems affecting current food chains. However, bioplastic industries are still new for people in the region,” said Dr. Pipat.

However, Dr. Pipat predicted that the period of 5 years was not exactly predictable because the world changed rapidly and the society work together more. For instance, any business requires 17 goals of Sustainability Development Goals (SDG) proposed by the UN. Therefore, every nation must adjust itself more in terms of business management in response to environment and sustainability. To put it simply, emergence of bioplastic industries may probably occur earlier than 5 years owing to environmental trends and concerns among people in all nations and from all walks of life.