Sugar Sector Recovery to Face New Challenges for Next Season

On 2 November 2021, Thailand Sugar Online Conference 2021 was organized by Fireworks Media (Thailand) Co. Ltd. This event principally serves as a platform, though virtually, for sugar industry stakeholders in Thailand and south-east Asian countries to meet one another annually so that they discover new opportunities for business networking and obtaining state-of-the-art knowledge on sugar growing and production. The event consequently saw over a hundred participants and attendants from sugar and bioethanol industries.

 The panel discussion entitled, “Sugar Sector Recovery to Face New Challenges for Next Season”, took place as a final activity of the conference. Even so, it received much attention from the attendants, thanks mainly to interesting discussion of the three panelists, namely Mr. Siwa Pothitapana, an expert in cane and sugar industry policy and development from Office of the Cane and Sugar Board (OCSB), Thailand, Mr. Rangsit Hiangrat, Director General of Thai Sugar Millers Corporation Limited (TSMC) and Mr. Pipat Suttiwisedsak, Chief Operatiing Officer/Managing Director of KTIS BioEthanal Co. Ltd. The panel discussion was chaired and moderated by Mr. Pipat Weerathaworn, Ph. D., from the Committee of Thailand Society of Sugarcane Technologists (TSSCT).

The governmental policy or measures to introduce the bio-economy in Thailand

Beginning the discussion on biotechnology and sugar production in Thailand, Mr. Siwa Pothitapana from OCSB talked about the governmental policy or measures to introduce the so-called bio-economy in Thailand. He explained that the OCSB currently had a campaign to promote bioindustries, especially ones producing ethanol lactic acid and other eco-friendly products from which sugar was used as a raw material. Manufacturers of the industries can contact directly the sugar producers. According to Mr. Siwa, this year, 300,000 tons of raw sugar has been used currently in bio-product manufacturing, especially molasses-based ethanol.

The OCSB’s program to improve productivity of cane and sugar in the country

Not only does the OCSB have a program but it also provides research and development activities to improve cane varieties so that they were physically strong and grew faster. Moreover, the OCSB set target of the CCS to the level of 13 at the minimum, allowing cane growers to have alternative cane that suits better with the area of plantation. Mr. Siwa also said that the OCSB was currently supporting cane growers in terms of agricultural machines for harvesting cane. To help local cane growers, the interest rate is as low as 2%, encouraging them to buy or rent cane harvesters in their farm. In other words, according to Dr. Pipat, this support will help solve problems on labor shortage and financial issues as well as promoting mechanization in cane growing and harvesting in Thailand.

Dr. Pipat would like to know about the training of the OCSB in Sri Racha, Cholburi. Mr. Siwa then clarified that the training venue, serving as a capacity-building center on biopromotion, aimed for entrepreneurs and staff of bioproducts. It will help promote changing of conventional plastic products to environmentally-friendly bioplastic products in particular.

Engagement of Thai sugar mills in bioeconomy

Dr. Pipat then discussed with Mr. Rangsit from the TSMC about general engagement of Thai sugar mills in bioeconomy. According to Mr. Rangsit, since the Thai government is promoting bioeconomy, especially the bioindustries, sugarcane may be an effective and potential material for such development. In terms of sugar mills in Thailand, there are three major factors of concern. The first is how to obtain sufficient amount of sugarcane. The second is how to add value for sugar products. The final factor is how to boost the benefit sharing system.

At present, Thai sugar mills can be roughly categorized into traditional and bioethanol ones. Mr. Rangsit hence proposed that we should seek for biotechnology as effective as the western countries for Thai sugar mills. Moreover, without investment, such technology might not progress. Also, specific people to engage with are crucial. Mitr Phol and KTIS are examples that have acknowledged such concerns as both companies have modern technology for sugar production as well as international cooperation. Nevertheless, governmental cooperation is indispensable as it results in long-term and sustainable development among local sugar mills because some are already modernized whereas others are still needing support and improvement.

Mr. Rangsit also talked about how to find market for bioproducts. He gave an example of how to increase demands for bioplastics which relies on policy and support from the government.

Upgrading local sugar mills and support to farmers from the government

Dr. Pipat asked Mr. Rangsit further about self-improvement of local sugar mills in terms of new equipment and better extraction machines. He would like to know if there is any program among small local sugar mills. Mr. Rangsit replied to him that increasing self-efficiency of local sugar mills was not the only way, but increasing good quality of sugarcane with high CCS was also a must.

Since the OCSB is working closely and actively with local sugar mills, Mr. Siwa stated that there was an important policy on fresh and burnt sugarcane. Regarding the burnt cane, the Thai government is planning to reduce the amount of it for the next two years. Local cane growers are now being encouraged to cut fresh cane and leave the top and leaves of it so that they can sell them to local power plants later. So far, 19 factories have work cooperatively with the OCSB, and one company of SCG collected cane’s top and leaves for as high as 82-megawatt electricity generation. Furthermore, Thai farmers are asked to cut fresh cane by using modern but reasonably-priced mechanization. That is why the amount of burnt cane decreased to as low as 26% in comparison to 50% of last year.

In response to the aforementioned report of the OCSB, Dr. Pipat reiterated that, as Thai sugar mills were trying hard for self-improvement, burnt cane had been reduced from over 80% to currently 30%, and fresh cane amount was at 70%. Sugar yield amount moved up to 110-113 kilograms, as well. This means that using fresh cane for sugar production increases efficiency to the industry as a whole. However, financial support from various sectors is still required.

Mr. Rangsit also stressed that, due to higher amount of harvested sugarcane in Thailand this year, strong and active support from cane growers and governmental agencies, especially the สอน. was much required to manage delivery of sugarcane from a farm to a mill. Otherwise, the process may not be possible.

Ethanol business, especially the EV one

Since the ethanol is regarded as a co-product of sugar mills, Mr. Pipat Suttiwisedsak discussed about how many years ethanol business, especially the one on EV, would be in effect. He answered the moderator that the country had a total of 57 sugar mills and the daily crushing of sugarcane for further production was between 1 and 1.2 million tons. As a result, utilization of machines to crush sugarcane should take no less than a hundred days, meaning a hundred million tons of sugarcane per year. Such amount is good and beneficial to Thai cane growers.

Mr. Pipat Suttiwisedsak added that, in case Thailand had a hundred million tons of cane annually, 11 or 12 million tons of sugar might be produced, 2 or 2.2 million tons of which would be consumed locally. Consequently, the sugar price will drop. Solution to the problem, according to Mr. Pipat Suttiwisedsak, is that the country needs to produce less sugar with the same amount of sugar cane. Moreover, with the same amount of sugarcane every year, Thailand has to focus more on bioplastics, like PLA or PBS, or bio-based plastics. All of these are innovative. Also, biochemical production is interesting. Unfortunately, Thai people use or consume little amount of such products. The solution to the problem is ethanol for transportation, suggested Mr. Pipat Suttiwisedsak. At present, many western countries, such as Canada, the US and Brazil, are campaigning for the use of cleaner energy, so biofuel is a good alternative.

The moderator of the panel Dr. Pipat then concluded that Thailand was currently supporting the change of sugar to other kinds of product besides food. However, as Mr. Pipat Suttiwisedsak explained further, the EV has not affected much on energy consumption in Thailand recently as it is not the prime choice of Thai families now. This is because the EV takes short distances to travel; its price is not cheap; the charging period is not that quick. That is why, as the moderator emphasized, it will take around five years for the use of ethanol or other biofuels.

Facing new challenges

Finally, the moderator asked individual panelists to say something to the audience. Mr. Siwa remarked about sugar productivity in Thailand as well as biorefinery in the country. He said that the financial situation of sugar production in Thailand should be stable so that new investment existed to create new jobs for local people, hence people’s well-being and environmental sustainability. Mr. Rangsit said that appropriate amount of sugar was required, but this can not be successfully done in a short time. Mr. Pipat Suttiwisedsak addressed that Thailand should consider proper blending of production of sugar, ethanol and liquor by using all parts of sugarcane wisely as it can help reduce the country from importing crude oil, thus maintaining stability of Thai Baht. Nevertheless, the EV for now is not a prime choice for Thais as it does not contribute much benefits to the country, in the viewpoint of Mr. Pipat Suttiwisedsak.

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