Sugarcane, or Sugar cane, is any of six to 37 species of tall perennial true grasses of the genusSaccharum, tribe Andropogoneae. Native to the warm temperate to tropical regions of South Asia, they have stout jointed fibrous stalks that are rich insugar, and measure two to six metres (6 to 19 feet) tall. All sugar cane species interbreed, and the major commercial cultivars are complex hybrids.

Sugarcane belongs to the grass family (Poaceae), an economically important seed plant family that includes maize, wheat, rice, and sorghum and manyforage crops. The main product of sugarcane is sucrose, which accumulates in the stalk internodes. Sucrose, extracted and purified in specialized mill factories, is used as raw material in human food industries or is fermented to produce ethanol. Ethanol is produced on a large scale by the Brazilian sugarcane industry.

Sugarcane is the world’s largest crop.In 2010, FAO estimates it was cultivated on about 23.8 million hectares, in more than 90 countries, with a worldwide harvest of 1.69 billion tonnes. Brazil was the largest producer of sugar cane in the world.

Fresh sugarcane waiting for shipment

Fresh sugarcane waiting for shipment

The world demand for sugar is the primary driver of sugarcane agriculture. Cane accounts for 80% of sugar produced; most of the rest is made fromsugar beets. Sugarcane predominantly grows in the tropical and subtropical regions, and sugar beet predominantly grows in colder temperate regions of the world. Other than sugar, products derived from sugarcane include falernum, molasses, rum, cachaça (a traditional spirit from Brazil), bagasse andethanol. In some regions, people use sugarcane reeds to make pens, mats, screens, and thatch. The young unexpanded inflorescence of tebu telor is eaten raw, steamed or toasted, and prepared in various ways in certain island communities of Indonesia. The next five major producers, in decreasing amounts of production, were India, China, Thailand, Pakistan and Mexico.

  • India
  • China
  • Thailand
  • Pakistan
  • Mexico

Primary Products

The primary demand for sugar is what drives the widespread cultivation of sugarcane. 80% of the sugar demand came from sugar canes while the rest is made from sugar beets and artificial processes. Other than the common table sweetener, cane products include:

  • Falernum
  • Molasses
  • Rum
  • Cachaca
  • Bagasse
  • Ethanol

Other regions derive products from sugarcane like pens from reeds, mats, screens and thatch from other plant parts. In Indonesia, its young tube leaves, is a delicacy and is prepared in a variety of ways.

Sugar and European Overseas Expansion

Slavery sugarcane cutters

Slavery sugarcane cutters

European overseas expansion in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries initially took two directions. The first was towards the African west coast where the Portuguese were involved in raiding and trading expeditions for products like slaves, ivory, pepper and gold. The second initial direction of expansion was towards the Atlantic Islands. Here, Europeans found exploitable but not necessarily inhabited land where they collected wild products like honey and timber. Because of the lack of arable land in Iberia, colonists eventually returned to settle the land and cultivate products like wheat and ultimately sugar. Sugar was immensely profitable to produce but required large tracts of land and a large labour force for production. For these two reasons, the sugar and slave trade became intimately entwined in the European exploitation of the Atlantic Islands. This exploitation would eventually spread onwards to the Americas.

Workers in the sugarcane fields

Workers in the sugarcane fields

The capitalist plantation system was an economic system oriented to producing a highly commercialised crop using an archaic social form – slavery – to provide its labour. The profits from sugar production provided the impetus for the development of the plantation system that matured in the Mediterranean and eventually spread across the Atlantic to the Americas. Other commercial crops would be adapted to this system such as cotton, indigo, and tobacco, but sugar was the first.

Today, the sugarcane industries is established all over the world and follows international standards of employment in cultivation and production.  Today the sugarcane industry is recognised worldwide as a greener, more sustainable industry that pays attention to to its impact on the environment and the welfare of the workers.


Sugarcane and Slavery Videos

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