India's sugar output may drop next year as drought cuts cane planting

MUMBAI (Reuters) - India’s sugar production could fall in 2019/20 as farmers are struggling to plant cane because of a drought in two of the country’s top producing states, according to multiple industry officials and traders.

FILE PHOTO: A worker carries a bundle of sugarcane near Modinagar in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, India, March 4, 2016. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee/File Photo

A drop in production would slash exports from the world’s second-biggest sugar producer and support global prices that have fallen 15 percent so far in 2018.

“Many farmers couldn’t plant cane in Maharashtra and Karnataka due to water scarcity. This will reflect in next year’s production,” said Prakash Naiknavare, managing director of The National Federation of Cooperative Sugar Factories Ltd, a sugar processor trade group.

Cane is a perennial crop harvested 10 to 16 months after planting. The western state of Maharashtra is the country’s second-biggest sugar producer, while southern state of Karnataka ranks third.

India’s production during the 2019/20 marketing year could fall to between 28 million tonnes and 29 million tonnes from this year’s estimated 31.5 million tonnes to 32 million tonnes, Naiknavare said.

Maharashtra’s production could fall 16.7 percent to 7.5 million tonnes in the next season, he said.

The sugar marketing year runs from October to September.

“We don’t have enough water for cane planted last year. Planting on new areas is not possible,” says Shrikant Ingale, who was planning to plant cane on 7 acres (2.8 hectares) in the village of Mhada, about 350 km (210 miles) southeast of Mumbai.

Maharashtra received 23 percent less rainfall than normal this year during the June to September monsoon season, while the rainfall deficit in Karnataka’s cane growing region was 29 percent during the period.

Production may fall by half in Maharashtra’s central part of Marathwada, where people are struggling to secure drinking water, said B. B. Thombare, managing director of Natural Sugar & Allied Industries, a sugar mill based in the region.

Apart from water scarcity, an infestation of white grubs will curtail production next season.

Farmers usually keep a ratoon crop, but this year many are uprooting those plants because of the white grub infestation and water scarcity, said Sanjay Khatal, managing director of the Maharashtra Co-operative Sugar Factories Federation.

The ratoon crop is the root stub of the cane after the first harvest that remains in the ground for a second harvest, but that must be removed to kill off the grubs.

After record production in the 2017/18 year, Indian mills were struggling to export the surplus and sought the government help for overseas sale and to support local prices.

A decline in sugar output could lift local prices and prompt the government to halt export incentives, said a Mumbai-based dealer with a global trading firm.

“Indians shipments would be limited next season. Mills will find it more lucrative to sell in the local market than overseas,” the dealer said.

Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav; Editing by Christian Schmollinger