Over the past few months, huge chimneys have been belching thick smoke incessantly on the outskirts of Meerut city in Uttar Pradesh. October to April is sugarcane-crushing season, when mills across the north Indian state process a conveyor belt of the long, fibrous stalks. The wet plant waste is burnt to generate electricity, generating the smoke that hovers over the landscape. Despite this appearance of constant activity, however, the supply of sugarcane that feeds this industry is actually falling.

Arun Kumar Singh, a 35-year-old sugarcane farmer in Nanglamal village, about half an hour’s drive from Meerut, is worried. In the 2021-’22 growing season, Singh’s cane harvest shrank by nearly 30% – normally he would expect a yield of 1.4 lakh kilograms from his five-hectare farm, but last year he got 1 lakh kg.

Singh blames last year’s record-breaking heatwave, erratic monsoon and pest damage for his poor harvest. He said that high demand for sugarcane is leading farmers to plant new, more productive but less-resilient varieties. Gesturing at his fields, he said: “This variety was introduced only about eight years ago and has been demanding more water each year. Our region anyway has water shortages.”

A truckload of sugarcane is delivered to the Nanglamal Sugar Complex in Uttar Pradesh. Credit: Cheena Kapoor

The neighbourhood around Nanglamal is a hub of sugar-derived ethanol production, in the largest sugarcane-producing state in India. But across Uttar Pradesh – and indeed, the whole of India – sugarcane production is falling. At the same time, the central government wants sugar mills to produce more ethanol from excess sugarcane.

Ethanol-blended petrol

Ethanol can be produced from ether petrochemicals or sugarcane, corn and grains – called bioethanol or biofuel. Because these crops can be regrown, biofuels are classified as sources of renewable energy.

India produces more sugar than it uses. In the 2021-’22 sugar season, it produced 39.4 million metric tonnes. Around 26 million tonnes is consumed domestically every year, according to government data. Since 2019, India has dealt with its sugar surplus by exporting a large portion – more than 10 million tonnes last year – but ministers have said using it to produce ethanol is preferable as it means faster payments and better cashflow for mills.

India also imports fuel in large quantities: 185 million tonnes of petrol in 2020-’21, costing $55 billion, according to a report by Niti Aayog, the government’s think tank. Blending ethanol with petrol is therefore proposed as a way to use sugar not consumed domestically while achieving energy independence. Niti Aayog estimates that a 20-80 blend of ethanol and petrol will save the country at least $4 billion a year by 2025. Last year, India used 3.6 million tonnes (about 9%) of its sugar to make ethanol; in 2022-’23 it aims for this to reach 4.5-5 million tonnes.

In 2003, the Indian government launched its ethanol blending petrol programme, starting with the aim of a 5% ethanol blend. Currently, ethanol accounts for about 10% of the mix. By 2025-’26 the Indian government is targeting for this to reach 20%, presenting the policy as a win-win that “will help India strengthen its energy security, enable local enterprises and farmers to participate in the energy economy and reduce vehicular emissions”. To incentivise the setting up and expansion of sugar mills, since 2018 the government has offered a subsidy scheme, with financial assistance available on loans.

Food security concerns

The government said that the “properties of ethanol help in complete combustion and reduce vehicular emissions such as hydrocarbon, carbon monoxide and particulate matter”, and that a 20% ethanol blend in four-wheel vehicles reduces carbon monoxide emissions by 30% and hydrocarbons by 20% compared with just petrol.

When burnt, ethanol does indeed create 20%-40% fewer carbon dioxide emissions than conventional fuels, and because plants absorb CO2 as they grow can be considered carbon-neutral.

However, experts caution, this ignores greenhouse gas emissions embedded in the ethanol supply chain. Research into biofuels in the US last year found that the carbon intensity of ethanol may be 24% higher than petrol, due to emissions as a result of land-use change, increased fertiliser use and damage to ecosystems. Since 2001, 6.6 lakh hectares of land in India have been converted to sugarcane, according to government data.

“Ethanol is likely as carbon-intensive as petroleum fuels due to carbon emissions caused by the land-use changes to grow the crops, water exploitation and the entire process of making ethanol,” said Devinder Sharma, an expert on agriculture and trade. “Look at Germany, they have realised this and are now discouraging monocropping.”

Experts also worry that the push to use sugarcane for ethanol could have a negative impact on food security.

Sudhir Panwar, an agriculture scientist and former member of Uttar Pradesh’s state planning commission, said that as the price of sugarcane will increasingly be connected to petrol, “it will be termed an energy crop”. He said that this will “lead to large areas coming under mono-cropping, which deteriorates soil fertility and makes the crop more prone to pests. It will also lead to food insecurity owing to land and water resources moving towards the energy crop.”

In Uttar Pradesh, officials from the Indian Sugar Mills Association and sugarcane farmers in Uttar Pradesh told The Third Pole that large tracts of land are not currently being converted to sugarcane to meeting rising demand. Rather, they said, the increases in production are coming from the surplus that already exists and more intense farming methods.

Sonjoy Mohanty, director-general of the Indian Sugar Mills Association, said that the excess sugar India currently produces means that “meeting the 20% ethanol blending targets does not pose a challenge”. He added: “Going forward in the future, rather than increasing land acreage, we are targeting at improving the yield for higher production.”

Intensive sugarcane cultivation

While government subsidies and higher ethanol prices benefit sugar mills, Arun Kumar Singh, the farmer from Nanglamal, said farmers are not profiting from the policy.

Sugarcane is usually grown from cuttings, with the yield declining after five to seven years. Since sugar mills demand high quantities of sucrose, farmers are encouraged to switch to newer varieties and use fertilisers and pesticides.

As well as farmers having to bear the cost of climate-induced losses, such as last year’s heatwave, Singh said that the variety at his farm, which has been planted across India, has needed more fertiliser and pesticide every year. “From spraying pesticide only once per crop cycle or sometimes not even that, I have come to spray seven times this year,” he said.

Sundar Tomar, a farmer in Nanglamal, points to his recently harvested sugarcane. He said he needs more fertiliser and pesticide now to get the same yield. Credit: Cheena Kapoor

“A single bottle of pesticide costs $22 and can be used on approximately three acres of land. I have [30 acres] and have had to spray seven or eight times this season. The government may have increased mills’ profits for ethanol, but we get paid the same rate for sugarcane – $4 per quintal [100 kg],” said Sundar Tomar, another farmer in Nanglamal.

Then there are the problems of water scarcity and pollution.

Sharma said that sugarcane production has contributed to the depletion of the water table in western Uttar Pradesh, which is simultaneously experiencing changing rainfall patterns and drought. The industry has also polluted rivers by releasing large quantities of organic matter into waterways: sugar mills are the biggest source of wastewater in the state. Over time, Sharma said, this will make it harder to grow other crops, directly threatening India’s food security.

“In Maharashtra, which is the second-top sugarcane-producing state in the country, 70% of the irrigation water goes to sugarcane whereas it constitutes only 4% of the crop from the state,” he points out.

Increasing ethanol production

Senior staff at sugar mills in Uttar Pradesh dismissed these concerns.

“We have started to make 37 million litres of ethanol annually and have permission to expand. This increase in production has benefitted farmers with regular incomes. We are also processing almost all the wastewater from this distillery,” said Rajendra Kandpal, director-general of the sugar distillery in Nanglamal.

“We need to educate farmers on limiting the use of fertiliser and pesticides and switch to drip-irrigation or use of sprinklers. As for sugarcane being a water guzzler, that’s not a worry since Uttar Pradesh is a water-rich state,” claimed Abinash Verma, former director-general of the Indian Sugar Mills Association. Verma formulated and implemented central government policies on sugar, sugarcane and ethanol, and in 2022 started up his own grain-based ethanol plant in the state of Bihar.

In light of reports that sugarcane yields are falling across India, Panwar warned against repeating the experience of Brazil in 2009-’13, when erratic climatic conditions contributed to falling sugarcane yield – and a decline in the production of ethanol.

“With all the costs incurred by the state on ethanol production and the stress on the natural resources and effect on the health of the farmers, we cannot say that ethanol is environment-friendly,” said Panwar.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.