Southeastern farmers eye sugar substitute

With tobacco, the longtime staple of Southeastern agriculture, on the wane, farmers are looking for alternatives. One option may be stevia, a native South American plant that produces a natural no-calorie sweetener.

Late last month, a leading US-based global producer of stevia announced that it is expanding production of the crop to Georgia and North Carolina.

Currently, it’s only grown domestically in California, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

Sweet Green Fields LLC of Bellingham, Wash., which produces and markets sweeteners derived from stevia to food and beverage companies, has signed a contract with a Southeastern Georgia farmer to grow stevia on about 100 acres, according to the publication.

Most of the world’s stevia is being grown in China, but the US is a logical fit for the crop given the health-conscious nature of American consumers and their desire no-calorie sugar substitutes, said Hal Teegarden, president of Sweet Green Fields.

“The largest user country in the world today is the United States,” he said. “We believe there’s an interest in having a domestically grown available product.”

Teegarden said Sweet Green Fields chose Georgia and North Carolina for its expansion plan because stevia needs long days during the growing season in order to thrive, the Business Chronicle reported.

While stevia farmers in California are forced to irrigate, they shouldn’t have to in the Southeast because the region tends to get enough rainfall to water the plant’s shallow roots, he said.

“It doesn’t like to have wet feet, but it needs a little moisture,” he said. “In the Southeast, it can be primarily a rain-fed crop.”

Tobacco, which is leafy like stevia, tends to grow well in the same conditions that benefit stevia.

Tobacco farmers have been pondering new crops for the past few years as the increased emphasis on the dangers of smoking and chewing tobacco has prompted more and more Americans to kick the nicotine habit or refrain from taking it up.

In Georgia alone, the number of tobacco farms fell from 822 in 2002 to 224 in 2007, while the number of acres planted in tobacco dropped from 25,060 to 17,989, the Business Chronicle reported, citing the US Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Total state production fell from 50 million pounds in 2002 to 39.8 million five years later, according to the USDA.

The availability of stevia has varies from country to country over the years. 

In some, it has been available as a sweetener for decades or even centuries; in Japan, for example, it has been widely used as a sweetener for decades.

In other nations, health concerns and political controversies have limited its availability. 

The United States banned stevia in the early 1990s unless labeled as a dietary supplement, but in 2008 it approved rebaudioside A extract as a food additive. 

Over the years, the number of countries in which stevia is available as a sweetener has been increasing. In 2011, stevia was approved for use by the EU.

(Above: Workers in South America cultivate stevia.)

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