Sugar cane

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Sugar cane
Sugar cane plant (Saccharum officinarum), illustration from Koehler 1887

Sugar cane plant ( Saccharum officinarum ), illustration from Koehler 1887

Order : Sweet grass (Poales)
Family : Sweet grasses (Poaceae)
Subfamily : Panicoideae
Genre : Saccharum
Type : Sugar cane
Scientific name
Saccharum officinarum

Sugar cane ( Saccharum officinarum ) is a plant from the sweet grass family (Poaceae) and is assigned to the subfamily Panicoideae with about 3270 other species. Its origin is in East Asia, but today it is grown in all climatically suitable regions. The plant is the most important raw material supplier for the production of table sugar (sucrose) and, increasingly, also for the production of bioethanol .


Sugar cane is a monocotyledonous plant with the grassy appearance typical of Poaceae. The stalks have a diameter of 20 to 45 mm and a height of 3 to 6 meters. The sugar cane has rhizomes . The panicle-shaped inflorescences are 40 to 60 cm long. The fruits are small and only about 1.5 mm long.

The number of chromosomes is 2n = 80, but also 30, 40, 48, 50, 54, 60, 64, 68, 72, 88, 96, 108 or 120.

Sugar cane ( Saccharum officinarum )



The history of the use of sugar cane as a sugar supplier began around the 5th century BC. In the East Asian region, which is also considered to be the origin of the plant. The Malay Archipelago as well as New Guinea and China are given as the original regions of origin , but the exact genetic origin is unclear.

This plant gradually made its way to the Middle East through trade around the 1st century AD . At the same time, the Roman author Pliny d. Ä. that Arabic and Indian sugars were used in medicine. It was also recognized that the sugar crystallized from the original juice has a much longer shelf life and is easier to transport. The Arabs spread the culture of sugar cane cultivation along the edges of the Mediterranean Sea on their expansion trains. a. to Morocco and Sicily . Thanks to sophisticated technologies, they even succeeded in growing them in central Spain, which is very far north for a tropical or subtropical plant.

Western Europe got to know sugar as a luxury food in the wake of the Crusades. The crusaders took control of the cultivation of sugar cane in the areas they had conquered and occupied. Venetian merchants soon began to set up sugar factories near Tire , Crete, and Cyprus . There was a massive collapse in sugar production in the Mediterranean region as a result of the plague epidemic in the late Middle Ages. This crisis was probably decisive for the later use of slaves in the intensification of the complex sugar cane cultivation. North Africa, Europe and the Middle East have been supplied with sugar from the Mediterranean for centuries; the local production facilities only lost their importance when the climatically more suitable areas for cultivation, discovered in the New World, took over.

On his second trip in 1493, Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane cuttings to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola . The Portuguese also brought it to West Africa in the Bay of Benin . Because of the difficult processing, sugar was still very rare at this time and not affordable for ordinary people. Until sugar beet was grown from beetroot in the middle of the 18th century, sugar cane remained the only raw material source for sugar production .

Plantation economy in the Caribbean and the USA

After Columbus imported the first sugar cane shoots, the Caribbean developed into the main growing region for sugar cane and cane sugar the most important export item for the European Caribbean colonies in the 16th century . The cultivation of sugar cane started an enormous demand for work slaves . European slave traders exchanged manufactured goods (guns, alcohol, fabrics, etc.) for slaves on the West African coast and sold them in the Caribbean. It is believed that between 10 and 15 million Africans were deported to America in the course of the Atlantic slave trade . France's interest in the Caribbean sugar cane business was so great that in 1763 it gave up its territorial claims in Canada in order to be recognized by the British as the motherland of the islands of Guadeloupe , Martinique and St. Lucia . From "How was powerful sugar party, evidenced by the fact that the National Assembly in Paris in limiting the application of the proclaimed during the French Revolution universal human rights on the mother country on March 20, the 1790th" the same reasons renounced the Netherlands to their rule in Suriname to secure the return of their North American colony Nieuw Nederland by England.

Responsible for the introduction of sugar cane cultivation on the North American mainland were the French, who brought the plant to their colony Louisiana at the beginning of the 18th century . It was n't until the 1750s that the planters began to be interested in it. Many of them had fled Saint-Domingue in 1804 . In the period from 1796 to 1800 in Louisiana, where until then mainly tobacco and indigo had been grown, at least 60 plantations switched to sugar cane. It was during this period that the plant first brought wealth to its growers, and it became a major Louisiana crop in the 1810s and 1820s. This was now part of the United States and until the Civil War (1861-1865) the most important national sugar cane grower. Louisiana was actually unsuitable for growing sugar cane, and the plant actually only thrives in some parts of the south of the state . After the end of the American War of Independence (1775–1783) and the recognition of the USA by Great Britain, however, the entrepreneurship of the planters and the number of available slaves were so great that this disadvantage could easily be compensated for. In contrast to the cotton plantations, where women were employed to the same extent as men, the sugar planters attached importance to young male workers. The work on the sugar cane plantations was extremely hard and the life expectancy of the slaves employed here was short. A relatively short period of growth, which required constant care, was followed by the meal, cooking and cleaning season, in which the slaves had to work almost around the clock. These processes have only been mechanized since the middle of the 19th century. In Florida , which today is the second important sugar cane growing area in the USA alongside Louisiana, sugar cane cultivation began on a large scale only after the Civil War.

Economical meaning

Sugar cane is grown worldwide in the tropics and subtropics and represents at least around 70% of total sugar production . In the 2017 crop year , around 1.84 billion tons of sugar cane were produced worldwide. The 20 main growing countries according to the volume of their production brought in 92.6% of the harvest. These are:

Largest sugar cane producers (2018)
rank country Quantity
(in t )
  rank country Quantity
(in t)
1 BrazilBrazil Brazil 746.828.157 11 PhilippinesPhilippines Philippines 24,730,820
2 IndiaIndia India 376,900,000 12 IndonesiaIndonesia Indonesia 21,744,000
3 China People's RepublicPeople's Republic of China People's Republic of China 108.097.100 13 CubaCuba Cuba 19,648,340
4th ThailandThailand Thailand 104,360,867 14th South AfricaSouth Africa South Africa 19,301,688
5 PakistanPakistan Pakistan 67.173.975 15th ArgentinaArgentina Argentina 19,039,561
6th MexicoMexico Mexico 56,841,523 16 VietnamVietnam Vietnam 17,945,204
7th ColombiaColombia Colombia 36.276.860 17th EgyptEgypt Egypt 15,242,687
8th GuatemalaGuatemala Guatemala 35,568,207 18th MyanmarMyanmar Myanmar 10,659,222
9 AustraliaAustralia Australia 33,506,830 19th PeruPeru Peru 10,336,178
10 United StatesUnited States United States 31,335,984 20th BoliviaBolivia Bolivia 9,616,440
world 1,907,024,732

Cane sugar can be offered cheaper than beet sugar on the world market. For a long time in the EU it was not competitive with the beet sugar produced in the EU because of the European sugar market regime , which was supposed to protect the domestic market through tariffs, quotas and subsidies. In 2004 the World Trade Organization (WTO) decreed the gradual opening of the European market, which led to a further increase in the importance of cane sugar. From 2000 to 2012, the annual world sugar harvest (i.e. from sugar cane and beet) increased by around 30% from almost 1.4 billion tons to 1.77 billion tons of raw value (sugar). Above all, the production of sugar cane rose from 1.26 billion tons (2000) to 1.71 billion tons (2010), while the production of sugar beet (sugar content around 20%) since the peak in 1989 with a production of 314 million Tons decreased over 250 million tons in 2000 to 228 million tons in 2010.

Cultivation and harvest

Sugar cane harvest without machines

Sugar cane grows in subtropical and tropical climates. In order to thrive properly, the undemanding sugar cane needs temperatures between 25 and 30 ° C - if it is colder, growth slows down, below 15 ° C the plant no longer grows. The water requirement of the plant is very high - but it must not stand, otherwise the plant will rot. So hilly growing areas are advantageous.

The sugar cane is planted using cuttings . Stalks from the lower part of the "sugar cane stalks", which have two to four knots , are used. Depending on the level of technology, they are either manually or mechanically placed in rows in close succession in the ground and piled up so that the stalks are lightly covered with soil. The row spacing is 1.2 to 1.5 m. The spacing within the row is chosen so that ultimately 15,000–20,000 cuttings per hectare are planted. After one to two weeks, the cuttings sprout, that is, they form roots and shoot new stalks (tubes) from the eyes (bud). The stand needs around 3 to 6 months to grow until the rows are closed.

Sugar cane harvest with tractor

The first harvest, cutting the cane, can be done 9 to 24 months after planting out. The time of harvest depends on the sugar content and degree of ripeness. The stalks are cut off directly above the ground and the sugarless leaf apparatus removed at the top. This is often still done by hand or with sugar cane harvesters . The "stalks" spring out again and after another 12 months the next harvest can be cut. A sugar cane crop can be harvested up to eight times. In India the useful life is e.g. B. two cuts, in Thailand three, in Brazil five cuts. A sugar cane plant can live up to 20 years.

Sugar cane is harvested around the world at different times, which are shown in an overview on the homepage of the World Association of Beet and Cane Growers (WABCG).

The working conditions in the sugar cane fields are sometimes problematic. Often children are used as workers ; low pay is the order of the day in the regions where sugar cane is grown. Brazilian plantation workers receive around 1.4 reais (approx. 60 euro cents - as of June 2007) per ton of sugar cane chopped. The daily output for good workers is around 15–20 tons.

The changing harvesting method

Burning sugar cane field in Thailand

Burning down the fields is common practice in sugar cane cultivation worldwide. Above all, the farmers who do not work with machines but with harvest workers let their sugar cane fields burn down on the evening before the harvest. This burns the weeds, withered foliage and mosquitoes that interfere with the harvest . The candy canes remain, which makes the work of the harvest workers easier. The incendiary ash is thrown high into the night sky by the thermal . Depending on the direction of the wind, entire stretches of land are then covered with falling ash ("black snow"). The biomass, which could otherwise be used as fuel or to generate energy in industry or in power plants, is thus wasted. In addition, this method causes considerable fine dust pollution on site. For example, in Thailand the limit values ​​for fine dust for the harmful pollutants PM 2.5 are at a daily average of 50 μg / m³ (micrograms per cubic meter) and the PM 10 is 120 μg / m³. Although both values ​​are 2.5 times higher than the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), they are exceeded by up to three times each year for the sugar harvest. In the 2018 harvest season, Chiang Mai reached a peak PM 10 value of 385 μg / m³.

Legislators and environmental associations are taking action everywhere against the burning method. For example, it has been prohibited by law in Thailand for years. A minimum sentence of two years in prison and 14,000 Baht (approx. € 370, as of 2018) is threatened. Nevertheless, whole areas of land were burned again before the 2018 harvest.


Sugar cane plant ( Saccharum officinarum )

Sugar cane is mainly used for the production of sugar. The sugar juice is pressed out of the pipe. The fibrous portion remains as a by-product, the bagasse , which is also used. In addition, the complete plant or plant parts and parts are used for various purposes.

Sugar juice

Extraction of sugar juice in Thoothukudi, India

Sugar cane contains sugar - mainly sucrose - with a pulp content of 10 to 20%, and possibly even more in good weather. The sugar juice obtained by pressing is processed into cane sugar through crystallization and refining . In addition to the production of industrial sugar, sugar cane juice, freshly squeezed and chilled, is also popular for making beverages. In Cuba or Spain sugar cane juice is called guarapo , in Brazil it is called caldo de cana or garapa . In the Arab countries this drink is called قصب qaṣab, dialectally (e.g. in Egypt and the Levant ) ʾaṣab. Various spirits are also made from the juice. In Paraguay z. Example, a fermented sugar cane juice from the shot fired, the following addition of caramel or caramel as caña is referred to. In Colombia , Aguardiente is distilled from anise and sugar cane . In Brazil , the Caipirinha cocktail is based on the sugar cane brandy Cachaça . Rum, on the other hand, is mostly made from sugar cane molasses , the residual syrup still containing sugar that is left over from sugar production.

Bioethanol made from sugar cane is becoming increasingly important as a fuel or biofuel . Like sugar cane spirits, this is converted into alcohol by fermenting sugar in sugar cane juice or molasses. In the subsequent distillation , almost pure alcohol is obtained from it, which can be used in certain internal combustion engines ( flexible fuel vehicles ). For example, around 16 billion liters of ethanol are produced annually in Brazil and used largely as fuel for cars, but also for airplanes such as the propeller-operated agricultural aircraft Embraer  EMB 202A .
Lately, ethanol production from sugar cane in Brazil has been expanded even further, which has significant social and environmental consequences.


Bagasse bin of a sugar factory in Hainan, China

About 30% of the bagasse left over from the production of sugar juice is used as fuel in sugar production to provide heat and electricity. The remaining 70% is used as raw material in various areas:

  • Fuel for generating energy (electricity); the island of Mauritius generates 30% of its electrical energy by burning bagasse
  • as fuel in the household, e.g. B. as a briquette
  • Because of the high cellulose content as a base material for the production of paper , cardboard and packaging materials, but also in the automotive industry, for example for door panels
  • Plates, bowls and even cups for hot drinks can be made, are waterproof and biodegradable
  • in the chemical industry as a basis for the production of furfural and other chemicals.
  • Lime is added to the heated sugar juice during the manufacturing process. This causes impurities to precipitate. The resulting sludge is sold to the farmers after one to two years of storage. Distributed over the fields, this serves to improve the natural soil.


Chopped sugar cane as goat feed, location: Tijucas , Brazil

In chopped form, sugar cane is an important fodder for ruminants such as sheep , goats and cattle . Since the sugar is still contained in the chaff, it is much more valuable as fodder than bagasse.

Sugar cane was famous for its dental care properties. In old travel reports from the 19th century it was repeatedly described what excellent teeth the plantation workers or indigenous people had, which was attributed to the chewing of sugar cane. It seems paradoxical that a sugary plant has dental care effects - this is probably due to the “brushing function” of the rough parts of the plant. Since the fresh cane does not last very long, this aspect of the plant was forgotten again. In rural areas, however, sugar cane is still chewed during the sugar cane harvest.

A wax can be made from sugar cane , from which policosanol can be obtained in its pure form. Both sugar cane wax and policosanol are produced industrially.

The sugar cane fibers (leaves) are used as an alternative to wood fibers for the production of paper or molded fiber parts (similar to egg cartons). Customers are also chipboard factories that produce fiberboard that is used in the furniture industry, for example.


Web links

Commons : Sugar cane  album with pictures, videos and audio files
Commons : Saccharum officinarum  - album with pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Sugar cane  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ GrassBase - The Online World Grass Flora: Saccharum officinarum , Clayton, WD, Harman, KT and Williamson, H., accessed March 15, 2010.
  2. ^ Tropicos. Saccharum officinarum L.
  3. Plin. NH 12.32.
  4. Kathleen Deagan and José María Cruxent: Columbus's Outpost among the Taínos . Yale University 2002, ISBN 0-300-09040-4 .
  5. ^ Deutsches Museum: Sugar Cane and Slavery
  6. a b Sugar and Slavery: Molasses to Rum to Slaves ( Memento of February 8, 2005 in the Internet Archive )
  7. ^ The Sugar Trade in the West Indies and Brazil Between 1492 and 1700
  8. The Sugar & Slave Trades ( Memento from June 29, 2008 in the Internet Archive )
  9. ^ Antebellum Louisiana: Agrarian Life
  10. ^ Sugar cane cultivation in Florida
  11. Ira Berlin: Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves , Cambridge, London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-674-01061-2 , pp. 146 f., 179 f.
  12. Various u. a.
  13. a b c Crops> Sugar Cane. (PDF) Accessed March 7, 2020 (English). , Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
  14. Süddeutsche Zeitung : "Rohr suggests Rübe", article from March 10, 2010.
  15. ^ Economic Association for Sugar (WVZ) Sugar Production, under Sugar Market / Facts and Figures / World Sugar Market / Production and Consumption; Retrieved January 2, 2013.
  16. : under production, accessed on January 2, 2013.
  17. World sugar harvests ( Memento from August 30, 2014 in the Internet Archive )
  18. Greenpice , Greenpeace's City rankings for PM2.5 in Thailand . Report from 2016. Accessed July 29, 2018
  19. Frankfurter Rundschau . Chiang Mai's Fourth Season , Report as of April 7, 2017. Retrieved July 29, 2018
  20. Bangkok Post , New suger policy has a bitter taste , September 12, 2016. Retrieved July 29, 2018
  21. Brazil's bittersweet ethanol dreams . Report from Rainforest Report 03/2009, from Save the Rainforest . Retrieved July 30, 2018
  22. Company's own presentation of a project for energetic use of barge lanes, commissioning in 2010 ( Memento from October 6, 2013 in the Internet Archive ). Report in English. Retrieved July 30, 2018
  23. Biothemen, The history of sugar cane , the sugar mill. Retrieved August 8, 2018