After being harvested, tobacco is cured either by air, sun or fire. Curing enhances the flavour of tobacco and increases, by reducing the moisture level of the leaf, tobacco's preservability. This way it can be stored for a relatively long time without perishing.
Curing requires a source of heat and depending on the curing method used – air-curing, sun-curing, fire-curing or flue-curing – this source may be natural (sun, air) or artificial (fire, smoke). In the latter case, fuel needs to be used to cure the tobacco leaves. The type of tobacco which is most extensively grown and which does require an external source of energy for curing is the flue-cured Virginia type.
Fuels used to cure the types of tobacco which need an artificial source of heat include coal, oil, gas and wood. The most widely used fuel for curing is coal, although oil, gas and wood are also popular energy sources, especially in Europe, North America, Latin America and Africa.
For many years, tobacco growers have come under attack for using wood-fuel for curing tobacco. Yet, as far back as 1986, even before environmental awareness-raising programmes had begun to have an impact, the tobacco-growing sector accounted for less than 1% of all wood consumed in the developing world. Crudely generalised statements by anti-tobacco lobbyists, holding tobacco growers responsible for the relentless march of deforestation, were, among other things, based on the premiss that all types of tobacco require artificial heat to be cured, and that the only fuel used is wood. Currently, this view is widely accepted as being incorrect. Indeed, in many countries it is the tobacco-growing organisations that set the trends for the conscientious use of natural resources, frequently extending their efforts to other areas of environmental protection.
The choice of an energy source, regardless of its purpose, is always dependent on factors like availability, delivery cost, general convenience, labour requirements and efficiency. Thus, particularly people living in developing countries often prefer to use – for domestic, agricultural and other purposes – wood rather than alternative fuels, as it is cheap and readily available. Wood continues to be for them a fuel of necessity rather than of choice.
In our present days, most of the wood-using countries are actively encouraged to conserve their existing resources, especially since much flue-cured tobacco is grown in countries with a deficit or a prospective deficit of fuel-wood. Encouragement is given to afforestation projects and to improving the techniques of curing and barn design and construction.
The continuing search for more cost effective, energy-efficient uses of oil and gas, alongside improvements of barn and furnace design have contributed considerably to the dramatic drop in fuel required to cure tobacco. Many countries now bulk-cure their tobacco in barns constructed out of metal that guarantee better pane insulation, more precise atmospheric control within the barn, a considerable reduction in the labour requirement and, most importantly, a more efficient use of energy. Consequent savings in fuel costs make these investments an attractive proposition since a fully modified barn is likely to use less than 50 % of the fuel used in an unmodified barn.
Whether it is through legislative measures, leaf-growing contracts which bind farmers to the planting of trees or voluntary initiatives organised through growers' associations, preserving a country's natural resources has long become a priority in the tobacco-growing sector. Where wood is used for curing, emphasis is placed on sustainability: Tree plantations permit farmers to draw their wood-fuel requirements without encroaching on native sources, and provide a much faster return than naturally regenerated forest.
Environmental conscience-raising and the active promotion of tree-planting have had clearly positive impacts, in some areas even reversing the effects of deforestation. In the major Virginia tobacco-producing regions of southern Brazil, for example, wood has always been the most economical and viable fuel for the curing process. Nevertheless, tobacco growers in the region of the country have emerged as the most conscientious wood-users in the country, directly contributing to the doubling of the natural forest cover of the state of Rio Grande do Sul in only twenty years. It can impossibly be denied that Brazil stands out as a prime example of the commitment there has been to develop sustainable wood fuel resources.
Through the encouragement of tree planting, rather than depleting native forests and major improvements in curing techniques and barn design and construction, the economics of fuel choice have changed. Tobacco growers have amply demonstrated their concern for the future. It is a future based on full self-sustainability.
The ITGA's battle for a truthful portrayal of tobacco-growing related activities, has led the association to produce counter-responses in the form of different types of publications, ranging from studies to issues papers.
Below, two publications, previously published by the ITGA, present in more detail some of the points already addressed in the above text.
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