Research in sugar cane agronomy during the 20th century has optimized sugar production without detrimentally affecting freshwater quality in Mauritius. The record of the 20th century however also shows the needs and priorities of the stakeholders to change at a faster pace than scientific and agronomic know-how. Already as we move into the 21st century, the realities imposed by the trade liberalization process and the erosion of preferential access to our traditional export market are calling for a sharp reduction in our costs of production to ensure a competitive selling price for our sugar on the world market. To confront these new realities, a research and development programme covering the fields of mechanization, physiology, fertilizer use, irrigation, cultural operations and weed control have been elaborated to make certain that the sugar cane industry in Mauritius becomes more productive per unit of land.
In the above endeavour, MSIRI is directing much of its effort towards a cost effective mechanization of labour intensive operations and is reviewing existing cultural practices to suit mechanization. Weed management strategies are being developed to allow a more rational use of herbicides. Artificial induction of flowering and dry matter partitioning for the production of high sucrose and non-flowering varieties are also being investigated.
With the increasing competition for fresh water among the different sectors of the economy, efforts are being aimed towards a more rational management of water resources available for irrigation. Adoption of deficit irrigation, creation of an Irrigation Management Information System (IMIS) and the use of non-conventional water resources such as factory wastewater and treated sewarage effluent to increase sugar cane production, are being looked at. In addition, increasing irrigation efficiency with improved systems such as drip, centre pivot and dragline also form part of management strategies to optimize productivity per unit of water consumed.
In the face of the rapid rise in prices of synthetic fertilizers, emphasis in the agronomy research and development programme is focused on maximizing the efficiency of fertilizer use by sugar cane while at the same time minimizing the nutrient losses to the environment. In this context, alternative sources of nutrients to mineral fertilizers and a more accurate prediction of the soil supply of the major nutrients are being studied. From that perspective, the integration of a legume green manuring as a source of N for sugar cane and as a means of improving soil quality in sugar cane farming systems is being assessed. Moreover, the agronomic benefits entailing large scale application of ash and vinasse on sugar cane lands as well as the impact of such practices on soil quality are also being investigated.
Where useful, information technology is resorted to. In this context, a sugar cane land management system (GISCANE) has been developed using geographic information system (GIS) to identify the constraints to cane productivity so that remedial measures can be elaborated. However, as the pressure on existing agricultural land increases through abandonment and encroachment by other forms of developments, the generation of precise information on land utilization has become a necessity. Use of aerial photographs, satellite imageries and infrared photos are being used to assess and map land uses to better monitor productivity at the farm level and facilitate farm planning. The Institute has already a computerized Land Index database consisting of soil and agro-climatic characteristics of all sugar cane fields in Mauritius. The GIS coupled with global positioning system (GPS) and remote sensing are also being used to map and understand spatial variability existing within an individual field, so that necessary adjustments can be made to improve on our agronomic practices.