Mitr Phol seeking higher-yielding cane

KHON KAENDominating more than 40% of Thailand's sugar cane planting with 9.33 million rai of land, the Northeast is clearly the largest production area for sugar but not without downsides.

Chaiwat Khamkaenkhoon, president of the Northeastern Region Sugar Cane Planters Club, said a big problem is the lack of irrigation infrastructure in the region, leaving 90% of total plantation area to rely on the amount of rainfall.

With an average yield per rai of nine tonnes, the figure is dragging down the country's sugar cane yield to an average of 10.4 tonnes per rai for the 2012-13 season that began last month compared with last crop year's 11.8 tonnes, according to the Cane and Sugar Board Office.

While Thailand has its own government-funded cane research centre, the Mitr Phol Sugarcane Research Center, a unit of the world's fifth-largest sugar company, is trying to raise productivity in the Northeast to more than 20 tonnes per rai _ higher than the central region's average of 12-13 tonnes.

Satjaporn Chantawong, an expert in biotechnology at the Mitr Phol centre, said her group is developing its own species that is believed to have a higher yield than the widely used Khon Kaen species developed by state agencies.

Khon Kaen 3 makes up more than 40% of the cane species used nationwide, with an average yield of 10.5 tonnes per rai.

''We should have a wide variety of cane species as a back-up in case a certain species develops a disease of some sort,'' said Ms Satjaporn.

''We're in the phase of testing our species and comparing them with ones that are popularly grown. We are also providing the pilot ones to cane planters for free if they wish to use them,'' she said, adding that another problem in the Northeast is the sandy soil that is less nutritional and attracts insects.

As for pesticides, the centre uses mainly organic methods.

Mitr Phol's research centre covers an area of 1,600 rai, of which about half is plantation area, making it the largest centre of its kind in Asia-Pacific for non-disease crops.

Somnuck Jongmeewasin, an independent community researcher, said Mitr Phol's initiative to hand out cane species for free in the first phase is a positive step.

But if farmers have to buy the species in later stages, it will allow the company to control the supply of raw materials, he said.

Mr Somnuck also voiced concern that the company's quality control will prompt sugar cane planters to spend a lot of money on fertiliser and pesticides, especially if they use chemical agents.

About the author

Writer: Nanchanok Wongsamuth
Position: News Reporter