Sugar Industry Has A Future: Santiago
Fiji’s sugar industry definitely has a future. These were the words of the newly appointed chief executive officer of Sugar Research Institute of Fiji, Mahimairaja Santiago.
Speaking to SunBiz, Professor Santiago said while there was a drastic decline in the yield and area under sugarcane, he remains determined.
Through innovate technologies based on scientific research, the sugar industry would flourish and contribute to the national economy.
He added the institute was undergoing a restructuring currently.
“Probably from May, we are going to introduce the new organogram,” he said.
“Once we implement this one then we can strengthen our research programme.”
In the restructured organisational chart, Professor Santiago highlighted the presence of principal scientific officers, finance manager, administrative manager, technical officers, senior scientific officers, and technical assistants who all would contribute collectively to the research programmes..
Professor Santiago is a well-known Soil and Environmental Scientist with 34 years of experience in agricultural research and education.
He completed his doctorate in Soil Science at Massey University, New Zealand and did his post-doctoral work on Phytoremediation of Metal contamination at Massey University, New Zealand and University of Georgia, USA.
He has served in various capacities including the Dean, Faculty of Agriculture at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, India.
As an Expert Member, he served in the Board of Studies of several State Agricultural Universities.
Professor Santiago has also served in the board of directors of Tamil Nadu Sugar Corporation Limited and Perambalur Sugar Mills Limited.
Below are excerpts of an interview with Professor Santiago:
What are some of the challenges the sugar industry faces in the country?
The major challenges we have are: the impact of climate change, and decline in soil health.
In every agriculture production system, soil health plays a majorhuge role.
Soil is the soul of infinite life as it provides nutrients for the crop.
We need to understand the characteristics of the soil and various biological and chemical processes that are taking place in the soil. By manipulating these processes and thus the characteristics of soil, we can improve the crop yield.
In recent years, Fiji has had the issue flooding due to climate change.
This brings the sea water to the soil – what you call, sea water intrusion.
Already the soil is in acidic condition and the sea water intrusion adds more salt to the soil.
Therefore, soils become sick and unable to produce reasonable yield.
One of the major characteristics of soil which determines nutrient cycling in soil and also the plant growth is the pH level. which is the measure of how acidic or basic water is.
The pH of
Fiji soils, the pH is low.
It of is
around five and we need the pH level to be around 6.5 to seven.
That means, with that pH level, the nutrient cycling in soil is affected.
Then I have observed farmers plant eight or nine ratoon crops which deplete the nutrients in the soil.
With that depletion of nutrients, it is harder to replenish soil nutrient status.
Therefore, you cannot maintain mum level of crop yield. an opti
How can we overcome these challenges?
The institute issues.
Therefore, our major focus will be on soil health which covers the nutrients and organic matter build-up in the soil. Soil organic matter content is also very important. We need to have a certain level of soil organic matter to sustain crop production.
In this context, there are several options we have.
You can go for the use of organic manures, compost of crop residues to increase soil organic matter content.
Take for example, the biochar.
Biochar is produced by converting the biological waste into a stable carbon compound through a process called pyrolysis. You burn the biological material under very low oxygen content or in the absence of oxygen, and finally you will get the biochar.
This biochar is capable of not only retaining nutrients in the soil, but it also reduces the greenhouse gas emission from soil.
So, we are planning to make this biochar from the sugarcane residues.
Then we can apply this biochar to capture the carbon in the soil.
That process is what we call carbon sequestration.
Currently, field experiments on green manuring are progressing at the institute. We found black gram is suitable for green manuring.
Black gram which is a type of pulse is ploughed inside the soil which increases soil organic matter content and enriches the soil with plant nutrients, besides improving the soil physical properties.
It could add approximately 100 to 120 kilograms of nitrogen to the soil through this green manure, besides large amounts of phosphorus and potassium. is planning to address these
What timelines are you giving yourself and the organisation within which to address this matter of soil health?
It is a long-term period, probably two years. Right now, we’ll start our research programmes addressing these issues of soil health and the major challenges like how the soil has affected the crop yield over the past few years.
Studying these processes and phenomenon may take at least six to eight months.
The research to address those problems may take another six months to one year.
Then we finally come up with the strategies for improving and sustaining the soil health.
Does mechanisation play a role in the industry?
Yes, it does.
We have very grammes.
Right from the day of planting to the day of harvesting, mechanisation is practiced. good mechanisation pro
What type of sugarcane is suitable for Fiji?
There are already very strong breeding programmes.
So this institute has developed more than 16 high yielding varieties of sugarcane.
So those varieties are good.
They are growing very well under different climatic conditions and soil types.
Is the institute looking at working in collaboration with any other organisations?
One of the priority areas I am looking at right now is to develop strong collaboration with national as well as international institutes.
I have already been talking to many scientists, including scientists from New Zealand, Australia, and India.
I will also be approaching some of the international institutes.
I fortunately did my doctorate in New Zealand, so I have some contacts with our New Zealand and Australian counterparts.
Probably soon, I will have some international workshop, inviting the potential collaborators.
Then we’ll develop proposals for specific programmes, so that we can get some funding from international agencies.
Scientific collaboration is very much needed for any institute.
What are some other plans in place for the institute?
We have a graduate training programme where we can engage research students from universities.
They will come and do research programmes.
We are also planning to provide some scholarships in the coming years.
The institute will also have an outreach programme where visits will be made to secondary schools to enlighten students about the research institute. for their
What would your key message to the sugar stakeholders be?
I am confident we will achieve the increase in the sugarcane yield in the coming years based on strong scientific research.
So, with that strong scientific research, we can certainly develop best management practices that will improve soil health and thus sugarcane yield.
All key stakeholders should also contribute towards it.