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What is Sugarcane?

By Debra Durkee
Updated May 21, 2024
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Sugarcane is perhaps best known as being the source for white sugar, but it is also a source of biofuel and syrup. The plant itself is actually a grass with a thick stem and feathered leaves, and has been grown in some parts of the world as a food crop since at least 6000 B.C. Sugarcane requires rich soils in order to thrive, and does best in a tropical or subtropical environment.

In the proper conditions, sugarcane can reach heights of up to 13 feet (4 m). Larger isn't always better, though, and soils that are too rich can produce larger canes with less sugar content. If allowed to grow long enough, feather-like plumes will sprout from the top of the cane. Usually it is harvested before blooming; if the canes are cut back to the ground, they will regrow in the next cycle. Plants are described by the thickness of the cane; thin canes are known as just that, while the more desired, higher-producing thick canes are known as noble canes.

The time it takes sugarcane to reach maturity varies between six and 24 months, depending on where it is being grown and the type of plant. In commercial settings, canes are generally cut back and allowed to regrow until they cease to become productive. When this happens, a new crop is planted. Instead of using seeds that will yield plants quite different from the parent plants, sections are taken from an adult cane and planted to begin a process called vegetative propagation. New plants develop from sections of the old, and are genetically the same as the original plants.

Originally from New Guinea, sugarcane spread first through Asia and India, then to the Mediterranean. It wasn't brought to North America until Columbus included it in his cargo, and has since remained a popular crop. Grown outdoors in areas where the temperature does not drop below freezing, it is also grown indoors in colder climates.

In addition to the traditional crystal form of sugar, it is also possible to use pieces of sugarcane to distill a sweet syrup called jaggery that can be used as a sweetener in a way similar to sugar crystals. In India, this syrup is also used in the brewing of alcohol. Pieces of the sugarcane can also be chewed just as they are harvested, and the shoots of the cane are often eaten as a vegetable dish in Asia. Sugarcane can also be used for making paper, floor waxes, and polishes, and is found in several kinds of cosmetics.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is sugarcane?

Sugarcane is a tall, perennial grass that thrives in tropical and subtropical regions. Its scientific name is Saccharum officinarum. It's primarily cultivated for its juice, which is extracted and processed to produce sugar. Sugarcane accounts for about 80% of the world's sugar production, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

How is sugarcane turned into sugar?

The process begins with harvesting the cane, stripping away the leaves, and crushing the stalks to extract the sweet juice. The juice is then boiled to concentrate it, resulting in a thick syrup. Crystals form as the syrup cools, which are separated from the remaining liquid (molasses) to produce raw sugar. Further refining leads to the white sugar commonly used.

Can sugarcane be used for anything besides sugar?

Absolutely! Sugarcane has multiple uses beyond sugar production. It's a source of biofuel, particularly ethanol, which is blended with gasoline to reduce carbon emissions. The fibrous residue left after juice extraction, known as bagasse, is used for making paper, bioenergy, and biodegradable plastics. Additionally, molasses is utilized in animal feed and to produce rum.

Where is sugarcane predominantly grown?

Sugarcane is predominantly grown in countries with warm climates. Brazil is the largest producer of sugarcane, followed by India, China, and Thailand. These countries offer the ideal growing conditions of abundant sunlight, water, and fertile soil, which are essential for the crop's growth cycle that typically ranges from 12 to 18 months.

Is sugarcane cultivation sustainable?

Sugarcane cultivation faces sustainability challenges, including water consumption, pesticide use, and land use changes. However, efforts are being made to improve sustainability through practices like precision agriculture, crop rotation, and the use of organic farming techniques. The industry is also exploring the use of sugarcane byproducts to create a more circular economy.

How does sugarcane impact the environment?

Sugarcane production can have significant environmental impacts, such as habitat destruction, soil degradation, and water pollution from fertilizers and pesticides. However, it also has positive aspects, like carbon sequestration, where sugarcane fields absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The balance of these effects depends on farming practices and land management strategies.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By Krunchyman — On Jul 30, 2014

Sugarcane seems to be quite popular in India. However, their market is quite different than our American market, so it shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

By Viranty — On Jul 29, 2014

Though I've never had pure sugarcane before, I imagine that it would taste at least a fair bit better than what we get in the grocery stores. After all, we should remember that most foods on the market come in different brands, and are usually processed before being shipped out. For example, a few years ago, I did a comparison between two brands of sugar, and one of them tasted really cheap. Always be a smart consumer, and choose the best, most natural brand.

By Hazali — On Jul 28, 2014

When people think of sugar, they mostly think about the tiny white crystals that people use to sweeten things. However, making sugar is definitely a process, and this article really shows that. Speaking of which, I was watching a video on YouTube the other day, and it was a very interesting process. The funny thing is that it applies to many food products. Though we put them on our plate without much thought, people work hard to make sure consumers get what they need.

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