Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Friday, Aug 02, 2002
Foods & Food Processing
Corporate - New Projects
Pepsi forays into seaweed farming
NEW DELHI, Aug 1
AFTER tomatoes, potatoes, chillies, basmati rice and groundnut, Pepsi Foods Ltd (PFL) is now making a foray into large-scale contract farming of seaweeds. The location: 10 km of sea front on the Palk Bay side towards Mandapam (Ramanathapuram district) in Tamil Nadu.
The beverages-cum-food major will be cultivating two kinds of red seaweeds Eucheuma Cottonii and Hypnea Musciformis in an area of 100 hectares, for which it has obtained permission from the State Government. The seaweeds will be used for manufacturing carrageenan, a food-grade polysaccharide used as a gelling medium that finds wide application in toothpastes, pet foods, processed meats and other food and dairy products.
"Never before has anybody in the country undertaken commercial cultivation of seaweeds. True, there are agar manufacturing units, especially around Madurai, which use Gracillaria weeds as raw material. But these are wildly growing weeds that are merely pulled out and sold after drying. There is no cultivation per se in this case," Mr Abhiram Seth, Executive Director (Exports), PFL, told Business Line.
Indeed, the absence of cultivation has led to excessive harvesting of Gracillaria without any concomitant replacement of biomass. "The agar industry is virtually defunct today, as the raw material supply has dwindled. Moreover, exports of dried seaweeds have been placed on the restricted list, in view of overexploitation," Mr Seth observed.
He also contended that carrageenan was much superior to agar both in terms of cost and versatility, particularly in its ability to form an almost infinite variety of gels at room temperature. It is for this reason that carrageenan solutions are used for thickening, stabilising and improving viscosity of various foods and non-food products.
Pepsi has sourced the technology for seaweed cultivation as well as carrageenan extraction from the Bhavnagar-based Central Salt and Marine Chemical Research Institute (CSMCRI), a constituent laboratory of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
"They supplied us the basic planting material as well as know-how. We sponsored the trials and pilot plant at their field station at Mandapam," Mr Seth added.
Pepsi had initially applied for undertaking cultivation along a 35-km stretch along the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay, equivalent to an area of about 350 acres.
"We were keen to cultivate the weeds on the side of the Gulf of Mannar because the more calm sea there would be conducive for high average daily growth rate (ADGR) of 8-9 per cent. But since this falls within the Mannar Marine Biosphere Reserve, we were asked to opt for the Palk Bay side, where the weeds would have an ADGR of only two per cent," Mr Seth said.
The company has, therefore, been asked to begin with 100 hectares, "which we plan to extend to 5,000-10,000 hectares eventually, depending upon the availability of water space and approval from the State Government''.
Mr Seth said that the contract farming was proposed to be done in individual plots of 0.25 hectares (40 meters by 60 meters), with each harvest cycle from planting to harvesting lasting 45 days.
"We would be allotting 10 hectares to each cultivator . For each plot that is harvested, they will be planting one plot," Mr Seth said. According to him, the average annual yield per hectare would come to around 100 tonnes of wet seaweeds, which translates into 10 tonnes of dry seaweed or 2.5-3 tonnes of semi-refined carrageenan. Pepsi has already set up its carrageenan extraction unit at Paramakudi, 80 km from Madurai.
Carrageenan currently fetches a price of up to $2,000 per tonne in the world market, the total size of which is valued at over $300 million. The Philippines accounts for nearly 80 per cent of the world's total Eucheuma Cottonii seaweed production of 1,30,000 tonnes, roughly 35 per cent of which is traded in dried form.
"We hope to do exports worth Rs 20 crore in the first year (2003) itself. In the medium term, the country could even displace the Philippines as the lowest cost and most efficient carrageenan producer," Mr Seth claimed.
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