Food and the Future Environment

Sugarcane Case Study


Sugarcane Case Study

The US consumes the most sweeteners of any country in the world. In the US, high-fructose syrup is made from corn, which has displaced some sugarcane production for sugar for the US market. Sugarcane production, however, has continued to increase in Brazil, the biggest sugarcane producer in the world. Sugarcane is a C4 perennial crop in the grass family and it's not grown just for sugar as a food sweetener.

Watch this United Nations video below, about the factors contributing to increased sugarcane production and some of the consequences. Then answer the questions below.

Video: Brazil: The ethanol revolution (4:55)

Click for a transcript of the ethanol revolution video.
49 year-old Severino Ramos de Enraja works for Moema mill, a large agribusiness company in Sao Paulo state in southeastern Brazil. From sugarcane the company makes sugar and ethanol alcohol, which partially substitutes for gasoline in Brazil. Less gasoline means reducing the harmful pollution which is changing the world's climate. But despite his work, Severino and hundreds of thousands of others may end up losing their jobs, ironically due to the success of their industry. I'm getting old and I don't have an alternative. I hope to be able to find work elsewhere. Tadeo Endraj is a director at the country's leading scientific research and development center. No other country has so much technology related to sugarcane. From producing plant varieties, growing, cutting, transporting, and other industrial processes related to sugar and alcohol production. During the 1970s, Brazil's economy was severely affected by an oil embargo and rising prices. The country's military government launched a national program to reduce its dependency on foreign oil. It encouraged the construction of ethanol plants, offering low-interest loans to sugar companies and subsidies to keep the price of fuel low. The automobile industry adapted quickly. The widespread use of ethanol has made the country a global leader in cutting emissions and oil imports at the same time. Increases in world prices of oil, international tensions, and an urgent need to address environmental concerns, are fueling the rapid expansion of the international market for Brazilian biofuels. During the first six months of 2007, the country's ethanol exports shot up by 70%. This is the industry's future. Here at Moema Mills, 50% of the sugar cane harvest is already mechanized. The three workers that operate each of these machines can replace sixty cane cutters. The mechanization process is here, it has arrived. It's whirring for us. But can cutters themselves are your machines. We are the beginning of the entire process. Mechanized cutting is also seen as better for the environment. Traditionally, manual harvesting sugarcane is aided by burning, which clears the plant's serrated leaves and tops. The burning is carefully controlled, but this wasn't always the case. Fires themselves create pollution and uncontrolled blazes have led to the destruction of forests and wildlife. State legislators have set a deadline for stopping this practice. By the year 2014, burning will no longer be permitted and almost all of San Paulo sugar plantations will shift from manual to mechanized harvesting. This means cane cutters will no longer be needed. There are no guarantees that jobs will be found for each cutter, but there is awareness that mass unemployment could lead to social chaos. Ricardo Brito Pereira is Moema Mills’ director. They need social stability and we need to create employment. The cutters will be absorbed in our future expansion. This is our responsibility. It's not only up to the government, the unions, we have to be involved. Brazil aims to double its current production of ethanol in 10 years. This might mean more need for farm machinery. Many believe that the conversion of ethanol into a tradable commodity worldwide, as oil is, is crucial for lifting the developing world out of poverty. To balance environmental concerns, technological developments and the redeployment of hundreds of thousands of cane cutters will be a major challenge for Brazilian society. This report was prepared by Heine Teskey for the United Nations.

If the video does not play, please see Brazil: The ethanol revolution (United Nations).