Infectious fungal disease derails UP’s blockbuster cane

A variety of sugarcane that has helped Uttar Pradesh beat Maharashtra to become the country’s biggest sugar producer is being pulled from its perch by an infectious fungal disease. The extensive cultivation of the variety made it acutely vulnerable and threatened its dominance. He has become a victim of his own success.

Developed by Bakshi Ram, former director of the Coimbatore-based Institute of Sugarcane Breeding, Co 0238 sugarcane variety is grown in about 90 percent of the cane area in western Uttar Pradesh, where cane cultivation is rooted. In other regions of UP, its share is slightly less but still the largest variety. It is threatened by red rot, a fungal disease described by entomologist M Thirumalai as ‘sugarcane canker’.

Extensive infestation

UP Sugar Mills Association General Secretary Deepak Guptara says the fungal infestation is so widespread that replacement with other varieties was considered a more viable alternative at the August meeting of UP’s state-level variety release committee.

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However, farmers continue to grow this variety. “In fact, the yield of Co0238 is exceptionally high compared to other varieties. If the infection is mild or insignificant, then growers prefer to grow this variety,” says Roshan Lal Tamak, managing director and CEO of DCM Shriram, which has four sugar mills in central UP. “In case of severe disease, they prefer new varieties,” he says. Seed infection, sowing time, humidity and rain are factors that contribute to the outbreak of fungal infection.

The prevalence of fungal infection varies from one factory to another. Cane area around one central UP sugar factory accounts for 91 percent of the total cultivated area, allowing the infection to spread rapidly. At another mill site, only 35 percent of the cultivated area showed a delay in the spread of the fungus.

Farmers may continue to grow Co 0238 despite the risks because they may not have access to seed of replacement cultivars.

Advantages of Co 0238

Co 0238 has two characteristics that endear it to farmers and sugar mills: high yield and high sugar recovery. High productivity is due to two factors: longer cane and larger diameter. Co 0238 is ‘medium thick’ and averages 2.5-2.75cm in diameter. Earlier varieties grown in UP were “medium thin” 2-2.5 cm thick. Co 0238, which accounted for about 3 percent cane area in 2013-14, occupied 88 percent of UP’s cane area in 2020-21.

Good agronomic practices allow the cane to grow longer and fatter. When seedlings are planted in trenches, as they are known, with about nine inches of space between them and four to five feet apart, the tillers, or secondary shoots, have ample room for growth and adequate sunlight, water, and nutrients. The result is a longer and heavier cane. Mustard, potatoes, peas or lentils are grown in the inter-row gap at the beginning of the crop’s life to generate additional income.

The variety also ripens early. This refers to early sugar concentration. When the crop is 300 days old, its sugar level is about 18 percent. This rises to about 20 percent after a month or two. When planted in trenches four to five feet apart, Co 0238 yields an average of 810 quintals per hectare (g/ha) compared to 600 g/ha of the previous popular variety.

Sugar mills prefer cane for early sugar harvesting. They begin the crushing season with a crop of “cane” cane or cut cane (the shoots that emerge from the stubble after harvesting). The next turn is spring cane, which is planted in February-March and harvested 11 months later. In a 2020 paper, Bakshi Ram and his colleague G Hemaprabha wrote that this combination resulted in an average sugar recovery of 12 percent in UP, up from 14 percent in 2019. Current Science.

Although Co 0238 was officially launched in 2009, it did not catch on until 2013-14. It was cultivated in 3 percent of UP’s cane area that year. But it spread like an oil slick on water and covered a little less than 88 percent of UP’s cane area in 2020-21.

Ram says he has advised sugar mills to reduce the area under cultivation of the variety. They should provide farmers with clean, infection-free seeds grown in nurseries or tissue culture laboratories. Before planting, the seeds should be treated with fungicides. Fields should also be treated with a biopesticide called Trichoderma. If a field is infected, cane cannot be planted there for a year. It is better to grow rice there because four to five months of stagnant water kills the fungi.

There are also replacement varieties, but they may not achieve the same status as Co 0238, Tamak says.

Farmer practices

During a five-day visit to the cane fields in Lakhimpur Kheri and Hardoi districts, this reporter met farmers from Jo 0238 whose yields were higher than the state average.

Anurag Shukla, 46, of Udranpur village in Hardoi’s Shahbad tehsil, achieved a yield of 2,468 quintals per hectare during the October to September sugar season of 2021-22. He had participated in a cane competition and the crop cutting exercise was conducted by the state cane board. The tallest cane was 21 feet long, and no cane was less than 18 feet long, Shukla said. Some weighed 3.5 kg. As the area of ​​the competition plot was five bigha (six bigha is an acre and 2.47 acre is a hectare), Shukla’s actual yield was less. However, the average productivity of his farm in the last three years was 986 g/ha.

Even those that aren’t as competitive as Shukla achieve above-average yields with good farm management practices. Paramjeet Kaur of JIgniya Shivraj village of Misrikh tehsil of Sitapur district has harvested 875 g/ha in the last three years. It is difficult to get higher yields from large farms because they cannot be given the same care as small plots of land. Kaur is almost illiterate. After her husband died 8 years ago, she was forced to take up farming. He learns the ropes on the road and does all the farming except farming with a small tractor.

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High productivity in UP

According to Co 0238, during the last eight years, UP’s sugar production averaged 96 lakh tonnes per annum, higher than Maharashtra’s average of 86 lakh tonnes per annum during the same period. Its sugar recovery increased from 9.07 per cent in 2011-12 to 11.73 per cent in 2019-20. It moved around 11.5 percent in Maharashtra. The tropics are more suitable for cane cultivation than the subtropics where winter inhibits growth.

Co 0238 contributed greatly to the sugar surplus in India. But Ram says the area under the variety should not exceed 50 percent. The sunny days of UP sugar mills may not return unless comparable replacements are found. But India may not suffer from sugar shortage due to expansion of cane area in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. The first advance estimate of sugar this year is 4,650 lakh tonnes, compared to last year’s fourth estimate of 4,318 lakh tonnes.

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