WASHINGTON (AFP) — The hardy sweet sorghum plant could be the miracle crop that provides cheap animal feed and fuel without straining the world's food supply or harming the environment, said scientists working on a pilot farming project in India.
"We consider sweet sorghum an ideal 'smart crop' because it produces food as well as fuel," William Dar, Director General of the non-profit International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) said in a statement.
Sweet sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) is the world's fifth largest grain crop after rice, corn, wheat and barley.
It grows in dry conditions, tolerates heat, salt and waterlogging, making it an ideal crop for semi-arid areas where many of the world's poor live, ICRISAT agronomist Mark Winslow said in an interview with AFP.
The plant grows to a height of 2.6-4.0 meters (8-12 feet) and looks like corn. Its stalks are crushed yielding sweet juice that is fermented and distilled to obtain bioethanol, a clean burning fuel with a high octane rating.
It has high positive energy balance, producing about eight units of energy for every unit of energy invested in its cultivation and production, roughly equivalent to sugarcane and about four times greater than the energy produced by corn.
Sweet sorghum requires little or no irrigation, limiting the use of fuel-burning water pumps that emit carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas contributing to climate change, Winslow said.
"With proper management, smallholder farmers can improve their incomes by 20 percent compared to alternative crops in dry areas in India," said Dar.
In partnership with Rusni Distilleries and some 791 farmers in Andhra Pradesh, India, ICRISAT helped to build and operate the world's first commercial bioethanol plant, which began operations in June 2007.
Sweet sorghum in India costs 1.74 dollars to produce a gallon (3.78 liters) of ethanol, compared with 2.19 dollars for sugarcane and 2.12 dollars for corn, the research institute said.
Similar public-private-farmer partnership projects are also underway in the Philippines, Mexico, Mozambique and Kenya, as countries search for alternative fuels, India-based ICRISAT added.
The United States and European Union are also very interested in making biofuel from sweet sorghum, Winslow said.
The US Department of Agriculture is sponsoring an international conference in Houston, Texas, in August to examine the plant's potential in ethanol production.
In addition to ethanol, "I think (sorghum) is going to be one of the two big crops in the tropics" that supply biofuel such as ethanol, the demand for which "far exceeds the supply" on the world market, Winslow said.
"It's a win-win situation" for developing nations since it allows them to save money they now spend on oil imports and invest it in sweet sorghum-ethanol production in dry areas.
He said India could meet its entire fuel needs with 100 bioethanol plants like the the one in Andhra Pradesh, which produces 40,000 liters (10,568 gallons) of ethanol every day.
Unlike corn, sweet sorghum is not in high demand in the global food market, so its use in biofuel production would have little impact on food prices and food security, ICRISAT said.
Sweet sorghum is grown on more than 42 million hectares (107 million acres) in 99 countries, with United States, Nigeria, India, China, Mexico, Sudan and Argentina its leading producers.
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