Jason Barton

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Sugarcane Ethanol: Sweet Solution or Bitter Issue?

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Being here in Brazil as I write this post, it’s interesting to see the near-uniformity of support for cane ethanol. There are so many convincing answers to questions like those posed in this article, at times it’s difficult to remain objective. Whether or not cane and ethanol are the best way forward, I have so much love for this country, the people here, and the amazing natural resources, it’s fabulous to see the development happening here, and to learn how the U.S. might be able to play a positive role in that development, being supportive without interfering.

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with Luiz Martinelli and like him very much, but am not sure about some of the points made in this article, though it’s difficult to know if it is from Martinelli or the reporter where the confusion stems.Where the article says, “Burning is another growing practice associated with negative long-term effects,” it’s not clear if this means, ‘practice used for growing cane,’ or, ‘a practice that is growing in use.’ In fact, burning is diminishing in its use around the country, and being phased out completely in Sao Paulo over the next several years. The reasons are somewhat complex, and the effects are not wholly positive or negative, which has made it a fascinating topic to cover over the past several years.

There is less burning in part because of air pollution issues and health hazards for cane laborers and others living near cane growing areas, such as where I sit right now. The burning is necessary for manual harvesting of cane, as clearing the cane leaves, or bagasse, makes it easier for workers to cut the cane. It also clears the field of dangerous animals such as snakes, scorpions, and spiders. That’s good, but when the workers enter soon after burning, they inhale the soot. Not good.

Then there’s the issue of manual harvesting versus mechanized. These jobs are not high paying and, as described above, can be unsafe and unhealthy, but people travel from all over the country to get these jobs since they are better than nothing. Mechanized harvest has become less expensive here for a variety of reasons, and the bagasse that is burned for manual harvest has become more valuable. With mechanized harvest, that bagasse can be burned at the ethanol refinery to generate electricity, and may be used for cellulosic ethanol in the future. Also, the jobs created for mechanized harvest, including jobs in tractor factories nearby and research jobs in Brazilian universities, this move away from burning and toward mechanized harvest looks positive. It’s a pity that the 80 jobs created by manual harvest are replaced with only about 29 or 30 for mechanized, but then again, if these jobs, though fewer, are higher paying, more highly skilled, and much safer, perhaps this is part of the development process.

The land use change issues, both direct and indirect, as well as land ownership, are also foci of my research here. I could go on and on, which is what I’m doing in the dissertation, but I’ll cut this short here.

I don’t have my mind made up, which is why I’m here now, talking with all sorts of different folks on the many sides of this fascinating issue.

Should the U.S. import more Brazilian ethanol? Not sure, but stay tuned, this PhD is only a few more months from completion (I hope). Vida boa.

Some hail ethanol as the methadone needed to wean Western countries off fossil fuels. Others deplore it as environmental sabotage. Prof. Luiz Martinelli, ecology, University of São Paulo in Brazil, presented his assessment of the controversial process on Friday.

March 3, 2010 – 2:00am
By Daina Ringus

Some hail ethanol as the methadone needed to wean Western countries off fossil fuels. Others deplore it as environmental sabotage.

The effects of Brazil’s growing sugarcane industry have prompted scientists to ask the question: are biofuels sustainable?

Read the entire article here.