Sugarcane belongs to the Saccharum genus from the Poaceae family. The Poaceae family (aka Gramineae) also includes wheat, oats and bamboo.
Fully matured, its height ranges from three to six meters a trunk diameter from three to five cm. The trunk is plant part containing sucrose (aka saccharose).
Sugarcane is said to be is indigenous to Oceania and more especially New Guinea. It is believed to have been used by the Polynesians for over 5000 years.
It no longer exists as wild species. Species that can be found worldwide are all derived from the Saccharum officinarum species.
First introduced to the Pacific islands, it then reaches the banks of the Indus. Persian Emperor Darius invasion of the Indian sub-continent in 500 BC brought back to Persia "the reed which gives honey without bees".
Sugarcane made its way to western Europe with Alexander the Great's armies when an admiral named Nearcus described in 326 B.C. a plant called "honey- yielding reed" by Persians.
The Arabs introduced it in the Mediterranean area in the seventh century. Crusaders brought it to Europe at the 12th century and cultivation ranged from Italy and Spain to southern France.
The discovery of the new world truly marked the expansion of sugarcane production worldwide.
Sugarcane has always had a major economic influence. For centuries, there was almost no alternative to sugarcane for industrial scale sugar production. Sugar was a high valued spice and a also medicinal product (mainly diuretic effects), hence the name of the crop Saccharum officinarum (meaning pharmaceutical sugar in Latin).
Its first competitor was discovered during the Napoleonic wars and the English blockade when a French chemist devised a industrial way of producing sugar from beet root. Althought that discovery, sugarcane remained until to the end of the 19th century an economic weapon. Crop areas (mainly Americas and West Indies) and the routes to Europe were subject to wars of conquest and/or disablement.
At the turn of the 20th century, sugar production from sugarcane reached a momentary excess over world demand. This momentary excess was quickly overturned by the 1st World War and its needs in large alcohol supplies to sustain troop morale as well as for gunpowder and explosive manufacturing.
Today sugar cane production represents 1683 millions of metric tonnes (2009 data)1 which amounts to 22.4% of the total world production1. Sugarcane is therefore the 1st crop in the world (with maize being 2nd and wheat 3rd)1.
Brazil is the first world producer (2009: 690 millions of tonnes, 41% of world production), other major producers being India (2009: 285 millions of tonnes, 17% of world production) and China (2009: 114 millions of tonnes, 7% of world production)1.
Nowadays, sugarcane main products other than sugar are :
- Ethanol (motor fuel and fuel additive)
- Spirits (rhum agricole, rum, cachaça, ...)
- Molasses and syrups
- Bagasse (see below)
The bagasse, a by-product of sugar production, can be used as biofuel as well as a renewable resource for paper and insulation material production.
(1) source : F.A.O.