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From sweet on the table to fuel in the tank:
The millenary history of Sugar Cane

Luís de Sousa, The Oil Drum: Europe
Sugar Cane is back in the news. With oil prices resembling those of the early 1980s, it seems that all those efforts made by then in Brasil to step-up ethanol production make sense again. With the promise of a high energy return and a renewable production cycle, the cane culture might be set for a return.

It won’t take long to start hearing about sugar cane successfully planted and converted to ethanol closer to home than expected. But before the cane hype gets installed, please take a dive into the fascinating history of a plant that shaped the World.


Lessons from History

Among the things to learn from sugar cane’s history, the most positive one is probably its relative success outside the Tropics. On a negative side is its destructive power and non sustainability when cultivated intensively; although the industrial revolution would bring some ease to that.

The plant promises a high energy return on investment, and if successful at higher latitudes can be an important element of world energy stability. But care must be taken, neither Europe nor North America offer the same kind of environment that allows natural cane growth in Brasil, the Caribbean or Indonesia. At least irrigation is a factor reducing energy returns, to be considered at higher latitudes.

One other aspect not to oversee is the cane culture high reliance on hand labour. Despite advances in mechanization, the cane harvest is still widely made by hand, hence its survival in low wage countries. If sugar cane is set to come back to wealthier nations, this issue has to be addressed.
(23 March 2007)
Good background, nice images. -BA

Catholic Bishops Slam Brazil Ethanol Growth Plan

Reuters via Planet Ark
BRASILIA – Roman Catholic bishops warned on Thursday that a rapid increase in cane ethanol production in Brazil could have a devastating social and environmental impact in the countryside.

Brazil is a pioneer in using ethanol as an automotive fuel and is the world’s largest exporter of ethanol and second largest producer after the United States.

It is expected to attract at least 17.4 billion reais ($8.18 billion) in investment over the next four years, increasing production by 40 percent from the current 17 billion liters (4.4 billion gallons). Some analysts say production could double in over five years.

The Brazilian National Bishops’ Council, or CNBB, said at a news conference that such expansion could exacerbate income inequality in the countryside.

“Cane cultivation leads to land concentration because it requires large plantations and this has traditionally triggered a rural exodus,” said Bishop Odilo Scherer, who was appointed archbishop of Sao Paulo by Pope Benedict on Wednesday. “I can already see a new exodus (in Brazil).”

The bishops in the world’s largest Roman Catholic country also criticized the poor working conditions on sugar cane plantations.
(23 March 2007)

Ethanol Reaps a Backlash

Joe Barrett, Wall Street Journal via Marxmail
In small Midwestern towns residents fight plants on water, air fears;
Farmers boycott stores
…Nuclear plants, garbage dumps and oil refineries have long faced opposition from neighbors. Ethanol was supposed to be different. The corn-based fuel has a reputation for being good for farmers, the environment and rural economies. Ethanol, which already receives a 51-cents-a-gallon federal subsidy, figures prominently in President Bush’s goal of reducing gasoline consumption by 20% over 10 years. But a backlash has been brewing in towns across the Midwest.

Fights have broken out in Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas and several towns in Wisconsin. Opponents complain that ethanol plants deplete aquifers, draw heavy truck traffic, pose safety concerns, contribute to air pollution and produce a sickly-sweet smell akin to that of a barroom floor.

…Industry officials concede that ethanol plants have had problems with smell and toxic emissions in the past, but say new technology has largely remedied that. “Generally, communities look at these plants as local economic engines,” says Robert Dineen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, a Washington trade group. The plants bring jobs and have dramatically raised corn prices and farmland values. Many ethanol plants have paid rich dividends to investors, who often include local farmers and other residents.

But experts hotly debate whether renewable fuels offer a panacea for the world’s energy needs. As with ethanol derived from corn — which slurps up water — many alternative fuels are creating environmental problems of their own. In Indonesia, Malaysia and Canada, forests are being slashed for energy-yielding crops or other unconventional fuels. In India, environmentalists say, water tables are dropping as farmers boost production of ethanol-yielding sugar.

As the rush to build ethanol plants continues in the U.S. — there are 114 in operation, 80 under construction and many more in planning stages — clashes with locals are multiplying.
(23 March 2007)