Jason Barton

Professional Information and Energy News

Citizen Cane: Is biofuels’ future in the fields of Brazil, or the fields of home?

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It’s odd that we didn’t think much of these cane workers for the centuries when we were importing Brazilian sugar, when conditions were undoubtedly much, much worse than they are today. This has been a more common topic in the news of the last few years.

Mr. Lane proposes a series of cogent arguments why the U.S. should be more self-reliant in terms of our energy use, and some rather dubious ones on why we should not rely on Brazil and why we do not yet have a cellulosic biofuels industry here in the U.S.

Maybe it’s simply because of the age of information: now we have immediate access to the stories of people in rural areas on the other end of the globe, and the internet provides the space to tell those stories. Maybe it’s because, unlike the diminutive domestic sugar market, the burgeoning biofuels market and the already powerful corn lobby provide much stronger motivations to investigate the downsides of corn ethanol’s far more efficient competitor.

Having just returned from three months working with the cane industry in Sao Paulo, which produces 60% of their cane and ethanol, I can say that cane cutting is brutally difficult work, but work done by choice in a place where hundreds of thousands of people have no access to anything safer, smoother, or that pays better. They are not slaves; they are poor, without access to education, and without other options.

Perhaps an even more pressing set of questions is what will happen to these workers, and the Brazilian bioenergy market as a whole, as the sector becomes increasingly more mechanized and much more efficient over the next five years. These hundreds of thousands of workers will almost all lose their jobs, with one tractor replacing 80 workers. But it will also create another 15-25 jobs that pay better, require more training, and are much safer.

The increasing access to education for workers, information for cane producers and ethanol refineries, and the capital flowing into the sector from Brazil and abroad will help to streamline cane and ethanol production, shed light on best, and worst, practices, improving the industry and increasing yields per unit of land.

Many producers making the move to mechanization have not yet adopted the changed planting patterns or harvest practices that will increase their yields dramatically. The Sugarcane Technology Center (CTC) a private research firm in Sao Paulo whose associates produce the majority of Brazilian cane, is constantly at work investigating best practices and disseminating them across larger and smaller producers around the country’s center-south region.

This brings us back to why so many people advocate increased importation of Brazilian ethanol, and why we don’t have a cellulosic biofuels industry here in the U.S.:  Brazilian ethanol is much, much more efficient. In the Global Market that Mr. Lane describes, unlike the Global Village, price is king. Unlike U.S. corn, which is the recipient of enormous subsidies and is protected by a $0.54 per gallon tariff, Brazilian cane and ethanol compete on the free market, with drivers of flex fuel vehicles making a choice at the pump based on which is cheaper, ethanol or gasoline.

Our lack of a cellulosic industry is not because of “fear of the unknown,” but simply because of feasibility. Cellulosic ethanol cannot come close to competing with cane ethanol, nor with petroleum, so it does not have a presence in the market.

Yes, we should foster research and development in domestic energy, and biomass-based biofuels will likely play a part in our energy independence, along with nuclear and domestic petroleum and, most important of all, energy efficiency. We need to use less energy if we want any hope of achieving energy independence.

So while I agree with Mr. Lane’s premises, the difference is in the details. Let’s strive to nurture our own domestic energy markets, but let’s be honest about how and why we do it.

by Jim Lane

“Let me tell a story ‘bout a man named Jed /
a poor mountaineer barely kept his fam’ly fed…”

By now, if you are a devotee of vintage TV or over the age of 40, you may well be humming along to the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies. The song told the story of how these comic hillfolk ended up owning a mansion in a swank part of Los Angeles, because of an oil strike on their land back home. It’s the dream of many of poor landowner for a long time now.

[…]

Cheap fuel! Cheap energy!

That’s what we want — or have wanted for a long, long time. Cheap fuel, and cheap food, and no questions asked.

So much of our cheap sugar comes from the cane fields of Brazil — for the Brazilians drove down the price with an efficiency that virtually extinguished the US sugarcane business. We don’t see the cane worker any more clearly than the Nigerian farmer.

We may tut-tut over reports of slavery in the industry when we see it flash across the Bloomberg Channel, or regret the conditions that every cane worker must experience, wielding a machete at high speed for hours, and days and years. The long years in the hot fields, the high prices in the company stores, the rude shacks used by the cane-workers — we might become agitated if we saw it, but we don’t see it, or rather we avert our minds rather than our eyes. It is the same with chicken farms or cattle feedlots — a 60 Minutes report might arouse our outrage for a day or two, and then we lapse into the old habit of taking the cheap price, and pushing inconvenient thoughts aside.

Read the entire article here.