Multiple threats to PH sugar industry

February 22, 2019
Teodoro C. Mendoza (The Philippine Daily Inquirer) |

Sugarcane is grown in 17 provinces in the country, distributed in eight regions from northern Luzon (Isabela, Cagayan) to Mindanao (Bukidnon, Cotabato, Davao), and occupies a total land area of 422,384 hectares. Twelve of the 28 operational sugar mills are located in Negros, Panay, Leyte and Cebu, producing 56 percent of raw sugar. Tarlac and Batangas contribute 20 percent, and Bukidnon, 24 percent.

Cultivating these areas are 62,000  farmers, giving an average  yield of 57 tons/ha. The 28 sugar mills operate at 66-percent capacity, giving an average recovery of 1.8 bags/ton cane (one  bag=50 kilograms), which is low considering the sugar recovery of 2.4 bags in more efficient mills. There are also 14 sugar refineries and four bioethanol distilleries producing 25 percent of the mandated ethanol market. Raw sugar production averages 2.2-2.4 million metric tons per year. Close to 700,000 Filipinos are directly employed in sugar production, and about 5-6 million more are indirectly employed, representing close to 7 percent of the country’s population.

The Philippines has a low sugar yield at 5.1 tons sugar  per hectare. Columbia yields 2.38 times more sugar per hectare; Australia, 2.15 times; Brazil, 1.88 times; Guatemala, 1.74 times; and Thailand, 22 percent more. With respect to sugar recovery per ton of milled cane, Brazil recovers 58 percent more; Australia, 45 percent; China, 36.5 percent; and Thailand, 15 percent.

At present, the sugar industry is threatened by at least  four factors: first, the high costs of production—inputs, labor, interest rates; second, the low yield and low market price of sugar, which leads to low farm income; third, climate change, which has become more damaging in recent years; and fourth, labor shortage due to the government’s infrastructure program, the private construction boom and the 4Ps (cash transfer program), which, combined, have provided more employment options.

Also, farm workers’ children who had studied as a result of the free public education program find better employment opportunities. And low income from sugar as a result of low yield and the high cost of production prevents planters from paying competitive wages.

To increase yields per hectare, farm mechanization from planting to harvesting is the dominant need. But it is a complex shift as, (a) farm lots are small (5 ha is the minimum); (b) many farms suffer poor drainage, while those in hilly/sloping areas easily suffer dry soil conditions and, consequently, low yields; and (c) canes are planted in rows less than 1.5 meters apart, which is too narrow.

For combine harvesters to be efficient, yields should be 80 tons per hectare and above, as these machines are energy-intensive to operate and farms should be relandscaped. These machines also have to be redesigned to suit local conditions.

The most recent threat is the proposed liberalization of sugar imports. Cheaply produced sugar by more efficient and high sugar-yielding countries like Australia, Brazil and Thailand will flood the domestic market, displacing workers. For every 3 tons of sugar produced, one worker is directly employed and  about seven  are indirectly employed.

To meet competition, we have to improve the recovery rates of the mills; this requires sufficient quantity and good-quality sugarcane to process. For instance, an upgraded sugar factory spending P1 billion has to mill an additional 800,000 metric tons of cane to repay the loan and make a reasonable profit. Higher recovery rates mean higher earnings for farmers, so they will be able to repay  loans incurred to increase sugarcane yields. For every P1  invested to upgrade the sugar mill, the farmers have to invest P2 to increase sugar cane yields.

It is estimated that by 2050, our population will be 182 million. Sugar consumption will be about  4 million tons (1.8 times more than our current demand of 2.2 million tons). In the long term, domestic sugar demand will pose the greatest challenge. We need to increase sugarcane yields per hectare and sugar recovery in the sugar mills. Otherwise, the increased demand will be filled by sugar imports, or by alternative sweeteners (high-fructose corn syrup, aspartame), which have been reported to lead to health impairments (allergies and other serious illnesses like cancer) and will certainly cause unemployment.