ATLANTA — Efforts are under way to grow more uniform stevia plants with similar sweetener attributes and to grow the plants in a sustainable manner, according to speakers at “Stevia World Americas,” during sessions held Feb. 25 - 26.

Creating a consistent supply will prove challenging. The same varieties of stevia that grow in different ecosystems perform differently, said Javier Sainz, director of Prodalysa Ltda. in Chile. Also, different varieties grown in the same ecosystems perform differently, and single ecosystems change within the year, he said.

Farmers in India generally grow stevia on small land holdings of 6,000 to 7,000 square feet, said Shivraj Bhosle, managing director of Sun Fruits Ltd. in India. The high number of stevia growers leads to a differing quality of leaves and an inconsistency in supply, he said.

Commercial stevia cultivation will require growing the plants on a larger scale in tropical and sub-tropical regions, he said. His company has developed a 50-acre modern model farm near Mumbai, India.
Imperio Guarania SA works with farmers in Paraguay, said Sergio Chase, director general. At community meetings the company tries to find enough farmers to grow stevia plants on potentially at least 200 hectares (494 acres) in the community. An agricultural engineer for Imperio Guarania then works with farmers to grow the plants in the same manner.

Farmers in Paraguay have a yearly income of about $1,300 through traditional farming of such products as cotton, maize, beans, sesame, tapioca, soy, tobacco and sugar cane. Planting stevia may increase their yearly income by about 30%, Mr. Chase said. The agricultural engineer also checks on farmer needs for medicine and transportation.

Stevia plants may be a blessing for third world countries, said James A. May, president and chief executive officer of Wisdom Natural Brands, which markets SweetLeaf brand stevia sweeteners. Governments may promote stevia as a way of helping solve financial woes for farmers. Stevia farming might even reduce the illegal drug problem, he said. Many South American farmers are switching from growing marijuana to growing stevia plants because stevia farming brings in just as much money and is not as dangerous.

Since the Chinese government wants to raise the standard of living in its rural countryside, one step might be paying farmers better for their crops, said David Bishop, executive vice-president of international affairs for GLG Life Tech Corp., Vancouver, B.C. Farmers growing stevia may earn two to three times more money than farmers growing traditional crops. GLG contracts with Chinese farmers on about 16,000 hectares, which represents more than 150,000 farmers.